September 28, 2002

My Radar is On

Yesterday, a friend of mine and I were having lunch at The Castle, the main building of the Smithsonian. All of a sudden, we heard fighter jets fly low and fast over the National Mall. We looked at each other and and communally thought “this does not bode well.”

While we in DC may appear to be normal these days, our radar remains perpetually in the “on” state. Washington has truly become an international city: a logical target for any number of political or economic protests, peaceful or not.

For the last week we had been warned, via newspapers and internal Smithsonian emails, to expect major disruptions due to the impending World Bank and IMF protests. Our museum’s Renwick Gallery, located directly across from the White House, has been closed by the Secret Service this weekend for security reasons. It’s hard to know what to really expect. Hype or reality. We’re getting it from both sides these days. Protesters told us our morning commute would be shut down. Government officials issue colored alerts.

As I exited the subway and walked to work, the only evidence of anything out-of-the-ordinary yesterday morning was the groups of riot-clad police patiently waiting on street corners near the Mall. They sat quietly or stood, smoking a cigarette. Riot gear rested conspicuously next to them. Later in the day, they were called into service nearby.

As the fighters streaked above us we wondered if this was a Code Red situation or a World Bank situation. I remembered another flyby 10 years ago at the very same coordinates in the sky. It was right after the Persian Gulf War. It was our nation’s Victory Parade.

I had coaxed my wife-to-be to accompany me and my camera to the “celebration.” My personal radar back then detected possible photo-ops. Yet we were still blown away by the atmosphere that day. It was festive as tanks rolled down Constitution Avenue. Military hardware was displayed across the Mall as if we were at a weapons convention. And excited Americans stood at street corners with signs saying “Honk, we won!” They beckoned drivers to join the revelry.

Then came the flybys, jet fighters and other military aircraft flew in low victorious formation right down the center of the Mall. It was amazing to behold. Yet it seemed so un-American. Not anti-American just not American: more like what you might have expected in Communist Red Square or in Axis of Evil countries. The huge crowd cheered.

And it suddenly occurred to me: what if one of those fighters broke ranks and strafed the crowd? War is still an abstraction to most of us Americans. Even watching night bombing forays over Bagdhad on CNN was transcendental. Yet, there is a fine line that separates order from chaos. What if we were attacked? I thought as I looked above me.

Two F-16s broke the sound barrier over the Mall as I ate lunch yesterday. A private plane had wandered into the “temporary flight restriction” area over the Washington Monument. Without realizing it, I simultaneously held my breath, waiting for something to happen and replayed my memories of a decade ago.

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