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Spring's thaw stalled by chilling thoughts

Published March 21, 2004

WASHINGTON - The nation's capital wears a stunning coat of many colors in the spring that, for me at least, is as much of an attraction as the city's monuments and grand buildings. Spring puts on a spectacular floral show. Azaleas blaze and daffodils bring a splash of yellow to the city's parks and roadsides. The scent of crocuses and hyacinths flavors the crisp air, and tourists marvel at Mother Nature's work in a city where the politically powerful marvel at their own.

I arrived here on a cold and rainy day and found the landscape to be rather bleak for this time of the year. The first traces of spring were hard to come by. Was it because of an unusually cold winter? Or had spring become an antiwar protester, refusing to lend beauty to the first anniversary of the invasion of Iraq? But there was something else about the landscape here that struck me. Official Washington is becoming a fortress. Everywhere you look, barriers are going up and streets are being ripped apart to stiffen security around monuments and key government buildings. The city is in the midst of a counterterrorism construction boom.

Washington is, of course, the ultimate target for terrorists who would gladly die for the chance to strike this symbol of all they hate about America. In the 9/11 attacks, a hijacked airliner slammed into the Pentagon only minutes after two other planes brought down the World Trade Center towers in New York. A fourth plane that crashed in Pennsylvania when passengers fought back may have had the White House or the U.S. Capitol as its destination.

The response has been to throw up more barriers and beef up security. Antiaircraft missiles are visible on the rooftops around the White House. That part of Pennsylvania Avenue that fronts the White House was closed to cars several years ago. Now, the street is being dug up as part of an even tougher security plan that is likely to make the White House even less approachable for tourists. There's a construction wall around the Washington Monument while the government installs new security measures. Even the visitors' center being constructed on west side of the Capitol is more about security than welcoming tourists.

We should do everything we can to protect the nation's capital from terrorists. But can we ever do enough?

As the recent commuter train bombings in Madrid demonstrated, Osama bin Laden's agents don't have to pull off a 9/11 spectacular to create shock and mass casualties. In Madrid, where more than 200 people were killed and 1,500 wounded, the terrorists used 10 backpacks to carry small bombs that were detonated by cell phones. They could do the same thing in the subways and trains of any major American city, and there is little we can do to stop them. It is not practical to frisk rail passengers the way we do air travelers, so we increase police patrols with bomb-sniffing dogs, install more security cameras and urge subway and train passengers to be more vigilant. In an unusual editorial last week, the Washington Post even urged subway passengers to put down their newspapers and look around for suspicious persons or unattended bags.

"The dirty little secret among security experts is that our society and economy are fragile," Richard A. Clarke, a former presidential adviser and author of the forthcoming book Against All Enemies: Inside America's War on Terrorism, wrote in Time magazine last week.

"Shopping malls, casinos, theme parks and stadiums share a vulnerability to the sort of attacks seen in Madrid. In all these places, as with train stations, tens of thousands of people push through essentially unguarded portals in short periods of time. Since 9/11, owners of these facilities have feared that a few such attacks, indeed just one, would keep customers away long enough to bring bankruptcy. The financial cost of adequately protecting the thousands of such venues, assuming that was feasible, would put a large dent in profits or tax revenues. The effects of such attacks on the U.S. economy could be devastating."

Clarke says that defense against such attacks "is so disproportionately difficult that even costly protection does not assure success." The attacker has the advantage, he added, and security officials cannot just play defense. "They must not wait to pick the terrorist out of the crowd at Grand Central Terminal in the minutes before he sets the timer," Clarke wrote. "Terrorist cells must be infiltrated overseas. Terrorists have to be picked up at the border or found among the hundreds of millions of people on our streets."

Unfortunately, he said, terrorist cells are hard to infiltrate, and extremists who hate America are being turned out faster than we can arrest or kill them. Clarke concludes: "So, in addition to placing more cameras on our subway platforms, maybe we should be asking why the terrorists hate us. If we do not focus on the reasons for terrorism as well as the terrorists, the body searches we accept at airports may be only the beginning of life in the new fortress America."

A chilling thought as spring breaks out.

- Philip Gailey's e-mail address is

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