My travel plans for Washington were settled weeks in advance, my plane ticket non-refundable. There was no way of knowing the American government would heighten the terrorism alert from a post–September 11 normal Yellow—indicating a “significant risk of terrorist attacks"—to Orange—“high risk,” the second-highest level in the rainbow of anticipated mayhem—only the day before.
And the advice from Attorney General John Ashcroft? “We ask that Americans continue their daily work and leisure activities, with a heightened awareness of their environment and the activities around them.” Oh, okay.
Montreal’s Dorval Airport is relaxed by international standards. However, today an Air Canada flight is bound for Ronald Reagan National Airport—my flight. Reagan National was the airport closed the longest following September 11 because of its proximity to downtown DC and the concentration of government facilities, including the Pentagon and CIA headquarters, in the nearby Virginia suburbs. Any flight in is now considered a potential launching pad for an attack.
Security guards and city police officers patrol around the US Customs station. I present my passport and boarding pass. The agent asks the purpose of my travel. Research for a book I’m writing about Chinese espionage, I tell him. This throws him off his normal rhythm as he calculates on how many levels my answer ought to disturb him. On second thought, nobody would make that one up. Have a nice trip, he shrugs.
At the baggage-check area, a boy half my age signals me over with a crooked finger. He’s as awkward with his authority as with his ill-fitting blue polyester shirt and threadbare gray uniform pants.
“I’m going to look through your bag,” he says timidly, but meaning to be assertive.
The items in my toiletry kit hold particular fascination. Shaving cream, toothpaste, contact lens fluid. He ponders how any one of them might jeopardize an aircraft. When he fishes out a small foil-wrapped, oblong tube, he looks totally perplexed. He holds it up to the light, turning it to several angles.
He squeezes it reluctantly, flinching slightly, the way you’d probe someone else’s pimple. It gives, like soft wax. What could it be? Plastic explosives?
“Suppository,” I whisper.
I get nowhere.
I lower my voice to
one level above inaudible:
“For hemorrhoids,” looking down over my shoulder to indicate the application I was referring to. Damn me for preparing for every conceivable contingency.
I pass inspection and am permitted into the secure zone.
“Oh, bloody hell,” the man following me intones in a voice suggesting he was recently released from the BBC’s school of English diction. “My satchel was just X-rayed.”
“I’m sorry, sir,” apologizes the guard. “It has to be inspected again.”
“What the Christ for?”
One of the cops takes a step forward. “All right, all right, no need,” the man gasps in exasperation, submitting to the indignity of the process.
This, I’m convinced, is why we’re doomed to suffer more successful terrorist attacks—because security is conducted contritely and we bristle against any inconvenience, no matter that it’s intended for our own protection.
I scan carefully for martyrs or killers. There’s a guy, late thirties, three-day growth, T-shirt, jeans, looking around alertly. We lock eyes for a moment. Could it be him? I fit the exact same description. Is it me? Maybe he’s the sky marshal. Maybe he thinks I am.
We take off into a pristine blue sky. Ideal, smooth flying conditions. Eerily reminiscent of September 11.
Don’t change your plans, advised the American government. Do that and the terrorists have won. That’s it, I think: just being in the air, I’m defying Osama bin Laden. While he hunkers down in some rathole cave, I’ll order me up some room service at my three-star hotel. That first single malt scotch will taste especially peaty tonight. Assuming we arrive safely.
Which we do. And it does.
Does Washington look like a city girding for war? Few tourists are gathered in front of the White House, but it’s cold and there don’t seem to be many tourists anywhere. A successful attack here, even if the casualties were low, would score a psychological bull’s eye surpassing the World Trade Center. This is where American power resides, the source from which decisions flow. Yet the impression is one of remarkable accessibility. Uniformed Secret Service and US Park Police squad cars are parked along Pennsylvania Avenue. The officers, however, don’t seem unusually watchful. Those stationed in the guardhouses don’t interfere with anyone’s coming or going.
Time and place. Wrong time, wrong place. That’s what being a victim is mainly about. A bomb explodes in a flash, and there’s nothing you can do to protect yourself except not be there. How do you know where not to be? And when?
So I carry on with my business, as the American government assured me I ought to. Otherwise, the terrorists win. At the same time, I can’t help feeling that, by dying, I rather lose. Give in, they win; get killed, I lose. Sounds like a two-headed coin to me.
I ride the subway. Transit police are visible in nearly every station. Some riders seem reassured, but not me. Police only deter individuals afraid of getting caught. Al Qaeda boys only have to get in, because they have no intention of coming out. Most commuters, myself included, are carrying a briefcase or knapsack of some sort. In other words, any one of us could be in possession of a weapon of mass destruction in sufficient quantity to kill or maim as far as the eye can see and well beyond that.
A biochemical or radiological attack is more insidious than a simple bomb. Some agent could be introduced into the water supply and I could take a drink without knowing that I was poisoning myself. The spores would invade my system unnoticed and begin gnawing at the raw ends of my nerves in a frenzy of excruciating pain until I felt nothing but numb terror, leaving me dead in hours or days. Or I could ingest radioactive particles that would lay down the foundations of cancerous cells that would replicate until they overwhelmed my healthy cells, killing me harrowing years later.
I turn on CNN Headline News, the most hysterical channel on television. It bombards me with the same story in an onslaught of relentless repetition. A bright orange bar across the bottom of the screen signals another report about the state of security. Nothing new, just a reminder that an attack could be launched somewhere sometime. Be vigilant. Be careful. Be worried. But don’t change your plans. Don’t panic. Don’t let the terrorists win.
On Monday, the Department of Homeland Security says Americans should assemble a disaster kit including three days’ worth of food and bottled water, first aid supplies, a flashlight, radio and extra batteries. It says every home should also have a safe room swathed in plastic sheeting and duct tape to keep out deadly contaminants. Maybe good, strong plastic sheeting is the best defence. But what do I do in a hotel? Do I mask the door and windows every night before bedtime? That would be a good time to attack, wouldn’t it? When we’re groggy and our guard is down. Could be a better strategy than coming at us during rush hour after we’ve been reminded to be alert by CNN and energized by Starbucks caffeine.
There’s an American idyllic that recalls a time when doors were left unlocked and strangers were greeted at face value. It assumes mutual respect and values a live-and-let-live attitude. It doesn’t suspect people sharing in the community of plotting its destruction, nor does it accommodate killers within.
Fear is the opposite of this, ugly and mean, bottled up instead of open. It’s the emotion that dominates the terrorists’ lives. Bred largely in societies where thoughts must be expressed furtively and power is held by cruelty, they are behaving in a fashion that comes naturally to them. We aren’t cut out for it.
A week under Code Orange and I’m leaving Washington.
“Do you mind?” the security guard at the airport asks with a regretful smile.
“Not at all,” I reply, charmed by the fact that—despite the heightened alert, despite the advice to cower behind locked doors reinforced with plastic sheeting with plenty of peanut butter and bottled water—Americans are still apologetic about compromising my privacy and causing me inconvenience. Obviously, the fear hasn’t gotten to them yet.