LAW ENFORCEMENT AGENCIES, notably the U.S. Park Police and the FBI, ought to dispense with the self-congratulations over their dealings with tobacco farmer Dwight W. Watson, who managed to close streets, create massive traffic jams and shut down some government offices this week with his two-day park-in on the Mall. It's great that the standoff ended without bloodshed. But it turns out that Mr. Watson was lying about having a tractor loaded with fertilizer-based explosives. And he had not, as he claimed, planted explosives on Interstate 95 in Richmond or behind the Marine Corps Museum in Washington. He nonetheless achieved his goal of keeping a city at bay while drawing national attention to himself. That's all the more reason for law enforcement to spend less time patting itself on the back and more time thinking long and hard about whether there is a better way to handle this type of incident. After all, Mr. Watson tied up scores of law enforcement officers who might have been better deployed in behalf of a nation's capital under heightened alert for terrorism and on the brink of war.
We hope there won't be a next time. But if there is, will authorities allow the next person to go to sleep at night undisturbed? If they have warning, as they did in this case, that a protester plans to bring a tractor to the grounds of the Washington Monument as part of a demonstration, will they allow it? And will authorities allow the next Mr. Watson to maintain phone service to the outside world -- as they did with this week's Mr. Watson -- or will they exert tighter control over communications, restricting cell-phone service to police negotiators? Will local officials recognize the possibility that standoffs with authorities at Waco, Tex., and Ruby Ridge, Idaho -- two lightly populated areas -- are not the same as shutting down parts of the federal government and clogging traffic arteries that are key to the evacuation of the city?
To ask these questions is not to suggest that the handling of Mr. Watson's bizarre 47-hour public protest was all bad. We do ask whether it could have been done better and without putting the rest of the city in jeopardy. Authorities need to ask themselves: Is there a better way?