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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006
Letter from Washington

Globe and Mail Update
Friday, March 28, 2003
From the Field
Patrick Kelly


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Pictures from Washington

The South Portico of the White House in Washington, DC.
Photo: Joyce Naltchayan/AFP

Michael Heacock stands guard in front of the Capitol building in Washington, DC.
Photo: Manny Ceneta/AFP

Security officials are parked near the Washington Monument in Washington.
Photo: Ron Edmonds/AP


When I flicked off the reading lamp above my bed in the tiny one-bedroom flat I share with two others, one of my roommates - dozing in the bunk below me - bolted straight up and yelped, "What happened to the electricity? Is everything OK?"

"Jodi, it's fine, I just turned out the light," I said. We shared a nervous laugh. "Maybe I really am paranoid," she muttered. We went back to sleep.

Earlier that evening, Jodi and I had climbed the fire escape bolted to the back of our quaint blue row house and sat down on our roof to chat in the warm spring breeze.

From our perch we could see the majestic Capitol Dome, the Washington Monument, even the White House - all illuminated in the distance and looking like brightly-lit targets for terrorist-piloted airplanes.

"Should we be scared?" we asked each other. We didn't feel frightened. Yet the country was at war and the terrorism-alert status had been upped from yellow to orange, one notch below the highest possible level. Our neighbours had stocked up on duct tape and plastic sheeting and Jodi had stowed a gas mask under her desk at work. No, we said, we weren't scared.

But three hours later simply turning off a light sparked a fleeting moment of half-conscious panic. The fear that terrorists will attack the city again survives in that blurry place between sleep and awake.

A surreal skin of normalcy is stretched over that fear. It's a thick skin now, hardened by the Sept.11th attacks on the Pentagon that killed 125 workers and the murderous rampage last October by a pair of snipers that left 10 dead and 3 wounded.

When the U.S. Homeland Security Department raised the terrorist threat level to 'orange' for 20 days in February, I asked people on the street if they feared another terrorist attack.

Everyone told me the same things: No, we're not scared. We refuse to live in fear. We won't change our daily routines.

But as I probed deeper I got more nuanced answers. "I'm not scared," one woman told me as she waited for a friend at the top of a metro escalator in Dupont Circle. "But my husband called me this morning to remind me about our meeting spot."

Picking a meeting spot - a location where families agree to meet in case of an attack - is common here. Almost everyone I know in Washington has one.

"I'm not worried," Walter Baker, a 31 year-old insurance underwriter from Alexandria, Va., told me. "But I have a six-year-old son and they're teaching him to get on his hands and knees or put his head against a wall in case there's an attack," he said.

Under the alert, military jeeps mounted with heat-seeking Stinger missiles patrolled the city and F-16s and F-15s streaked across the sky to shoot down threats from the sky.

The Homeland Security Department advised people to buy duct tape, prepare emergency supply kits and keep three-day's supply of food and water on hand.

Many rushed to the hardware store for supplies. But, they still took the Metro, drove down the Capitol Beltway to work, met friends for lunch, played with their kids and lived their lives.

The war in Iraq hasn't changed this.

Last weekend, Washington celebrated the start of the annual Cherry Blossom Festival. Despite nearly everyone being connected in some way to the government, war feels no closer or more tangible here than it might be in my hometown of London, Ont. Thoughts of war, like fears of terrorism, are there, but right now, Washington is waiting for the cherry trees to bloom.

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