Heightened Security Changes D.C. Atmosphere
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TOM BEARDEN: Driving in downtown Washington during rush hour can be an ordeal, but the terror warnings issued earlier this week about a pair of buildings in the district, and the expressed desire of al-Qaida to strike the U.S. Capitol and the White House, could mean new problems for traffic and commerce in the nation’s capital.
It also has meant ever-tighter security around icons of democracy: Symbols of freedom in virtual lockdown. Officials say the decision to raise the alert status in Washington to orange, the second highest level, was based on detailed information about al-Qaida surveillance dating back to 2000 and 2001 that recently was recovered in Pakistan.
Two Washington-based headquarters of global finance had been cased: The World Bank and International Monetary Fund, both just a few blocks from the White House. In response, streets are closed down, checkpoints are up. Heavily-armed patrols can be seen above ground, and below, in the Washington subway. Surface-to-air missile batteries in and around Washington have been in place for some time.
On Monday evening, the U.S. Capitol police responsible for protecting members of Congress and the capital campus shut down part of a nearby thoroughfare. First Street runs between two Senate office buildings, and its closure adds to the security cordon around Capitol Hill implemented after Sept. 11.
Terrance Gainer is the chief of the capital police.
CHIEF TERRANCE GAINER: We’re setting up some 14 vehicle security checkpoints around the capitol complex.
TOM BEARDEN: Neither gainer nor the congressional leadership consulted with local officials while making that decision. Washington’s elected delegate to Congress and its mayor were not happy.
MAYOR ANTHONY WILLIAMS: How do people think all the workers from all over the regions are going to get here with these kind of streets closures? Traffic is already back… if someone hiccups, traffic already backs up into Maryland and Virginia.
If you start closing streets like this you’re going to have traffic backup to Delaware. We’re not preserving the most important value in this city, the symbol of freedom and that’s freedom itself.
DEL. ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON: Without notice to our mayor, to any of our elected officials, to any of our traffic officials, Capitol Police Chief Terry Gainer precipitously made a unilateral decision to close down a major thoroughfare of the District of Columbia.
Now we can see that this certainly makes it easier for security officials, and we have another suggestion for them.
You really want to make it easy? Close down the all streets, close down the city. You can make it real safe.
TOM BEARDEN: Despite the heightened alert and overt counter terror measures, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said Americans should and would persevere.
TOM RIDGE: I would like to think, as sobering and as difficult as this news is and the kind of anxiety that it would generate, that the folks that work at those particular sites stroll through the neighborhood, through those streets would have the resolve and maybe a little bit of defiance to say, "Well, we know what you know, and we’re going to go about leading our lives. So we’re not going to let threats or this kind of information turn us into fortress America."
TOM BEARDEN: But reaction among Americans in the nation’s capital varies.
WOMAN: I’ve been really upset. I’ve had friends and family calling me all the time. I just don’t want to be here.
MAN: I guess it’s a necessary evil right now.
TOM BEARDEN: Jordan Naftal came into Washington from the city’s Maryland suburbs with his family. His wife, Yvette.
YVETTE: Well, at first this morning I thought, "do I really want to take a chance and take my children into the D.C. area?"
And then the more I thought about it, I thought with all the security, it’s probably the safest time to come around and look around.
TOM BEARDEN: Rob Murray was visiting from out of town.
ROB MURRAY: I found that as I go through the streets they’re not preventing you from getting anywhere they’re just slowing you down.
SPOKESMAN: Ladies and gentlemen, I can assure you there will be no additional charge for this excitement. ( Laughter ) This is just some of the things that have changed in the last two and a half years.
TOM BEARDEN: It’s not the first time federal security measures have conflicted with local priorities. After the April 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, city leaders complained when federal officials closed Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House.
And a portion of "E" Street that wraps around the southern end of the White House was sealed after Sept. 11. Checkpoints are now in place around the Federal Reserve Bank Building, near the west end of the national mall.
The concrete barriers called Jersey walls have sprung up in front of monuments and government buildings. Permanent, and less unsightly, security barriers are under construction around the Washington monument, capitol building and other landmarks. But beyond the physical measures– the walls, and checkpoints, the dogs, and submachine guns– the debate continues about how an open society can secure its capital without turning it into fortress Washington.