'Bob Levey speaking."

"Mr. Levey, my name is Mrs. McCafferty, and I just have a quick question to ask you. I won't take up too much of your time, I promise."

"I'm in such a good mood this morning that you can even ask me a slow question if you like."

"Good. Well, my question may sound a little silly, but . . . ."

"Silly questions are perfectly all right with me, too."

"That's good. Well, um, I'm calling you from North Tonawanda, N.Y. I have two sons, 13 years old and 11 years old. My husband has two weeks vacation coming up at the end of August. We used to read your column when he was stationed at the Pentagon with the Air Force about nine years ago, so we thought you'd know the answer. Do you think it would be safe for us to bring the kids down there and show them the sights in Washington, D.C.?"

"Of course it would. Why do you even wonder?"

"Because of all the murders and all the drugs you keep hearing about."

"Ma'am, the tremendous majority of the drug-related murders here take place at night, usually very late at night. And they take place far away from the parts of town where tourists usually go. Besides, you won't be trundling the kids off to the Washington Monument at 2:30 in the morning, will you?"

"No."

"And as far as the drug problem in general is concerned, let me tell you what a police officer who's a friend of mine says. He works in a lot of the drug-infested neighborhoods and he always tells me, 'If you want to find drugs in Washington, D.C., you will. If you want to avoid drugs in Washington, D.C., you will' "

"That makes a lot of sense, Bob. But I have to tell you, we're a little bit scared. No, that's not right. We're a whole lot scared. All we really have to go on here is the TV news, and it seems like every other night, on cable, there's a story about drug-dealing in Washington, and there's another bloody body face down in the gutter with a sheet being placed over it. My boys are scared stiff."

"I've seen the same stuff, and it's plenty powerful, I know. But the drug murders here aren't random shootings. This isn't like Al Capone's heyday in Chicago, where a car would roar down a street and some guy would stick a submachine gun out the window and open fire on everybody. Most of the drug murders in Washington are committed by dealers or customers who know their victims very well. Most of the murders are revenge killings or killings to stake out sales turf, not killings for the fun of it. No drug dealer has anything against a family from North Tonawanda, N.Y."

"But there've been several of those drive-by shootings where innocent people have been killed, haven't there?"

"Yes, there have been a few. And I'm not going to tell you that there's a 100 percent certainty that you won't get shot by a drive-by nut if you come to Washington, D.C. However, this isn't Beirut, Lebanon. It isn't even close. If you take the same precautions you'd take in any other major American city, it's very, very likely you'll have a nice, safe visit.

"Well, maybe I've been in North Tonawanda too long. But up here, I never worry that some teen-ager has an Uzi submachine gun in the back seat of his Jeep, and I never worry that everyone I pass on the street might be fleeing from the police. I suppose there are drugs up here. I mean, I know there must be drugs up here. But there isn't the drug violence."

"And I hope there never is. But I'll tell you, ma'am, I've seen violence in Washington, D.C., between two drivers who've just smacked into each other in a parking lot, and it scares me just as much as getting caught in a crossfire between two drug dealers."

"One more thing, Bob. Didn't I read somewhere that tourism is way down in Washington this year? Down something like 17 percent over last year?"

"Yes, you did. That story has been in our paper, and several others. And I'm sure the reason is the same sort of fear you just mentioned. A lot of people whose livelihoods depend on tourists are plenty worried."

"Probably means the traffic isn't as bad as usual, huh?"

"Tell that to the commuters on the Woodrow Wilson Bridge."

"The Woodrow Wilson Bridge! I'd almost forgotten! That was the worst part of living in Northern Virginia."

"Amen to that. Anyway, ma'am, my hat is off to you for checking with me. All those tourists who haven't come to Washington this year are just reacting blindly. I'm not saying their fears are entirely unwarranted. But it seems to me if you let a drug dealer scare you out of doing what you want to do or going on vacation where you want to go, then the world belongs to them and not to people like you and me. I'm not quite ready to see that happen yet."