Wright from Washington City
September 15, 2001
"Security" and dread
Trantor is in shock
By DAVID T. WRIGHT
Friday morning I ran an errand downtown; that foray together with my experiences Tuesday are the basis for my initial observations, which I'll report in the present tense.
While Washington City is open for business, a few things are very different from the way they were before September 11. One is the presence of military policemen in battle dress at every intersection. Some of them are making themselves useful by directing traffic; others are just standing around or even sitting in their camouflage-painted Humvees, the gigantic toadlike things now used instead of jeeps by the Army and Marines.
Of course, it's not clear just how their presence increases "security." For one thing, the troops are Dee Cee National Guardsmen, which means that they are drawn from Trantor's indigenous population a population not known for the characteristics generally associated with military effectiveness. These are not precision-drilled Prussian soldiers. For another, it's not clear that they have even been trained as military police. Sure, they wear the MP brassards, but someone might have just handed the things out and told the puzzled weekend warriors to try and imitate cops.
Real or imitation, what are they supposed to accomplish at those intersections, anyway? They're not actively checking anyone out. I guess they could set up roadblocks in an emergency, but that's the kind of thing that's generally done after an incident has occurred. In the case of a suicide attack their presence would accomplish exactly nothing except, probably, increase the confusion. (Those Humvees take up a lot of room.) For now, all the MPs really do is engender an atmosphere of dread.
Contributing to the oppressiveness is the fact that all streets for a one-block radius around the Presidential Palace are cordoned off with yellow police tape. Checkpoints have been set up in the middle of each street, through which a person on foot may pass only if he can show that he works at the palace or one of the surrounding buildings. I assume the same thing is going on, though on a larger scale, on Capitol Hill. The idea of reopening Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the palace a cause dear to the hearts of the Imperial City's deperate motorists is now officially out the window.
Generally, this being America (sort of) and not Germany, "security" procedures are pretty half-assed in Our Nation's Capital. At most public buildings, you could probably get in carrying a bazooka if you used a little resourcefulness. Still, the sunny time when our friend Bureaucrat X could get away (year after year) with pasting a happy face over the mug shot on his gubmint ID are over. Mirrors are used to look under cars parking at ministry buildings, visitors' bags are carefully scrutinized, and inside the building one's ID must be worn at all times.
Overhead, the skies usually filled with the roar of jetliners landing and taking off from nearby Reagan National Airport are eerily silent, except for the ominous thumping of important-looking helicopters and the slow circling of F-15s and F-16s.
With aircraft grounded, moving the mail must be problematic. That undoubtedly explains the unusual sight of Amtrak trains pulling large numbers of boxcars. I saw one heading south out of the city with about six boxcars and another six piggyback cars carrying semi-trailers.
Of course, every flag in town is at half-mast, and every politician feels the need to bloviate about the "cowardly" attack, the deep sorrow felt by our masters, their determination to catch those responsible (that does not include the American politicians who ordered the actions that provoked the attack), blah, blah, blah. I was horrified and disgusted to find a recorded message on my voice-mail today: the minister of the department, in a suitably sorrowful yet resolute voice, informing me of her virtuousness in feeling bad about the killing of all those poor little people.
Such feelings of benevolence to the great unwashed do not extend to wishing to share their fate, however. In the aftermath of the attacks, many bigwigs fled the city, but often they did little to help their underlings do the same. In my own department, the same automatic voice-mail system used to broadcast propaganda was not used on September 11 to tell people they could leave. In fact, it took as long as three hours for the news to trickle down to everyone. Then we were faced with the problem of getting home. The radio said that the 14th Street Bridge over the Potomac, the main artery for traffic from Dee Cee into Northern Virginia, was closed owing to the explosion at the Pentagon. That was not true, but it resulted in an enormous traffic snarl as a huge number of people simultaneously released from work tried to find alternate routes home. As we sat motionless in miles-long traffic jams, we were occasionally passed on the shoulder by motorcades sirens blaring, lights flashing apparently carrying some medium-high apparatchik who lacked that ultimate privilege of the proconsul beset by a barbarian onslaught: the right to flee by helicopter.
I was comforted to learn that the emperor himself was spirited away and locked in a bunker in Nebraska. Unfortunately, however, they remembered the combination and were able to get him out again. The reason given for Bush's excursion was a threat to bring down Air Force One using one of the hijacked airliners. Whether or not the threat was actually made, it is laughable to believe that someone flying a commercial airliner could somehow intercept another plane, much less engineer a collision with it, without the help of air-control radar. In any case, we are assured, Mr. Bush had to be dragged into hiding kicking and screaming it was his aides who demanded that he seek safer ground. I got a nice warm fuzzy when I learned that.
One senior minister who did not flee, according to the Ministry of Truth, was the Minister of Peace, Mr. Donald Rumsfeld. Mr. Rumsfeld was also a figure in the Reagan regime, where he pushed hard for the building of the B-1B nuclear bomber. The plane was built, to the tune of many billions of dollars, but to this day it is not capable of carrying out its assigned task of infiltration into "enemy" territory, because its electronics suite does not work as it is supposed to. It was partly that fact that resulted in the building of the B-2 bomber, which apparently can fly into enemy territory, at the cost of even more billions of dollars. The B-2 became operational just about the same time the Soviet Union, its supposed raison d'etre, ceased to exist. I don't know which I like more a hugely expensive nuclear bomber that can't perform its mission, or one that has no mission. Neither plane seems to have played much of a role in deterring the attacks of September 11. (It is odd that Minipax's official name is the Department of Defense. Why in the world did they name it that, of all things?)
Mr. Rumsfeld having been responsible for such a resounding failure under Reagan, it was only natural that he should be hired by Bush the Junior. The years have not been kind to him: as he stood next to the emperor in a show of resolution and determination, his face resembled, appropriately enough, nothing so much as a death's head. Give him a hood, a scythe, and a dark alley, and he might scare even Bill Clinton onto the straight and narrow.
By Saturday, much had returned to normal, but a number of highway exits and on-ramps were still closed, especially near the Pentagon, and ID checks choked traffic attempting to get into any of the area's many military bases. The result, predictably, was more traffic jams and frustration for anyone attempting to go about his business. The sacred HOV lane on I-395, the main artery south of the city, was closed. However, I spotted a convoy of Army trucks hauling refrigerator containers, escorted by motorcycle cops, using the lane obviously a shipment of corpses from the Pentagon strike.
Speaking of convoys, I saw three or four made up of Harley and Harley-clone motorcycles. Many of them were decked out with American flags. (I also ran across a couple of Boy Scout troops standing on medians and waving flags.) Now, I love motorcycles. I own two myself. But I have to say that I hate bikes with the loud pipes that Harley riders like to affect these days, and riding around dressed like an ersatz outlaw biker wrapped in a flag strikes me as akin to public masturbation.
On the other hand, it's probably one of the more harmless behavioral pathologies we will be forced to witness as the American love of jingoism blossoms once again. God help us. God help us.
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