WAKE UP, D.C.! WE'RE AT WAR!
by Mark Scheinbaum
American Reporter Correwspondent
WASHINGTON. May 15, 2002 -- It's tough to tell we're a nation at war from a visit to Washington, D.C.
While politicos and editors worry about what the government knew
before September 11, taxpayers should worry more about whether authorities
inside the Washington Beltway realize how far down they have let their guard
This is my first trip to the nation's capital in seven months. This
time I drove, the last time I flew. In fact, in October I arrived at Reagan
National Airport on the first day commercial flights resumed.
The security was palpable. Every cab driver. Every cop. Every usher in
the theatre. Every desk clerk. Every security guard of every building.
Attack meant war. War meant fear. Fear meant caution and heightened
Driving a thousand miles from South Florida into Washington provides a
concrete contrast in how the average guy and gal, local radio talk hosts and
DJ's, truckers, waiters, clerks, and average working stiffs like us view
things in contrasts to the Washington mentality.
For example, I met no one who worried that a CBS report about "What
Dubya knew, and when did he know it?" meant that somehow the Bush
Administration ignored hard evidence that could have stopped a massacre.
What I did find was lots of head-shaking about Attorney General John
Ashbrook allegedly being told last summer by the FBI that skyjacking threats
were serious. They were serious enough for taxpayers to Spring for the big
bucks to scoot Ashbrook around the country in a secure, private jet.
"Hey, it was just a precaution. Just a warning. Shouldn't the rest of
the country have the same options? Shouldn't I know, 'We've got this vague
warning, and you might not want to fly commercial just now?'" a trucker in
Roanoke Rapids, NC commented.
This week a U.S. Army Airborne major in summer dress uniform stood
on the Mall near the Smithsonian Natural History Museum and helped place
name stickers on students in his daughter's elementary school class during a
Up the stairs 50 yards away, security guards checked all shopping
bags, tourist backpacks, and purses. Pretty good security, just to get into
an IMAX movie, and to view the Hope Diamond, right?
The most suspicious, ordinary, weird, nice, calm, agitated folks - in
short, people just like me, were waved through with not so much as a "how d'ya
do" as long as you were not carrying a package or bag.
At the privately-run Holocaust Museum, security was - in contrast -
extremely tight. Roaming security guards appeared at odd moments with radios,
monitoring area police activity, and securing the perimeter.
Yet 78 paces away at the U.S. Forest Service, admittedly not a nuclear
power plant, not even a security guard or receptionist intercepted a visitor
wandering in off the street.
At a reception at the French Embassy guests had to be pre-registered
"for security reasons." Yet upon arrival there was no check of photo
identification. In fact there was no check of any identification. There was a
checkroom for coats, but no mandatory inspection of any belongings. Most
employees spoke neither French nor English at the event. In fact, the
supposedly impeccable French were poster kids for sloppiness and
disorganization. When two towers of champagne glasses were smashed to the
ground by a catering employee, no one knew who should clean up the mess. When
movie star Goldie Hawn showed up to say a few words, she had her own
bodyguards, but no security people from the Embassy knew how to turn on the
At a time of war one would expect increased police attention to detail. Well, the private sector seems to have it down pat, but not so for the public sector. At the Loew's L'Enfant Plaza Hotel, about 500 feet away from the building there was car-by-car security clearance before you could get to the front door. General Manager Skip Hartman and his staff screen visitors, ask for ID for all duplicate keys, and hotel room key codes are routinely canceled and changed at random to thwart room invasions and unwanted visitors. At the other side of town, a block from the Russian Embassy, when a suspicious character was parked at noon next to a playground and an apartment complex frequented by college co-eds, police couldn't care less.
"That's a patrol division problem, not a detective problem," a Metro detective told me later when presented with license tag numbers and a description. The deputy mayor said she would "check it out." Even without a war, one would think Chandra Levy's disappearance would have heightened police vigilance in Washington - or perhaps that's wishful thinking. At commencement exercises at American University's Bender Arena, there was routine security at the gate. Many government officials and diplomats were jam-packed into the building; So far, so good. Elsewhere on campus, where individual colleges held graduation receptions, no one checked on people wandering into the buildings. No one checked vehicles in parking areas. No one patrolled the campus to see if a terrorist sidled into a classroom or student union building to blow up graduates and their families. Who would think up such horrible scenarios? Only killers and those who have experienced their work in the last year. Finally, if the nation's capital knows about a war, someone forgot to tell those who patrol the waterfront. In the fish markets and seafood restaurant strip of Southwest Washington, there is no security in sight. If they are all working undercover, beneath the crab cakes, I apologize. Great work - I didn't spot you. But it seems as if anyone setting up mortars, rocket grenades, or TOW-missiles could again take out government buildings and the Pentagon. In the ritzy Georgetown waterfront area, it's worse. At midday, two marine patrol police boats are tethered together at the dock, while police chit-chat with each other. "Hey al-Quaida!" they seem to beckon, "Here, we're over here! You can take out two patrol vessels with one bomb. Step this way." In the world of politically correct homeless and drug tolerance, a pantheon of Washington's unwashed, Rasta-man wannabes, bag ladies, gang bangers on trail bikes, and smelly drunks patrol the parking area and Potomac promenade. Very classy. Very secure. Not. In Florida, North and South Carolina, and Virginia, I saw unprecedented surveillance of trucks and commercial vehicles by transportation officials and state troopers. In Fayetteville, N.C., even at midnight, on Bragg Boulevard at an entrance to Fort Bragg and Pope AFB, security perimeters have high visibility for many blocks around. Motel clerks near Interstate highways seem to take extra time for auto and parking information, explanation of room security, and uniformed security was, well, uniformly apparent wherever we stayed. In South Florida, among my circle of friends, clients, and colleagues safety and security concerns are now the top variable in considering trips and many "ordinary" activities. Yes, if you must know, many of us have increased our hours on the target range since 9/11. The point is this: There seems to be a disconnect between lots of folks who are at the seat and power, and their employers: the People.
Former UPI newsman Mark Scheinbaum taught political science at the University of Florida and University of South Florida, and is chief investment strategist for Kaplan Securities, www.kaplansecurities.com