Safer in Washington?
Washington, D.C. is one of those cities where it seems nearly
everyone grew up somewhere else.
And, since Sept. 11, 2001, most of those people hear the same
question from their friends and relatives back home: "Aren't you
scared to live there?"
The Sept. 11 attacks drove home a point Washington residents have
lived with for decades. When terrorists want to attack the United
States, some will seek important landmarks, others will seek
symbols of our financial power, but all seem interested in striking
a blow against the center of our power. Washington was No. 1 on the
Russians' "hit list" during the Cold War and no worse than No. 2 on
Osama bin Laden's.
So is it more dangerous here? Do we have more to fear than, say,
Houston, a city which Secretary of Homeland Defense Tom Ridge
identified as being among the most vulnerable to terrorist attack?
How about Los Angeles or Chicago or Miami?
In some ways, Washington may be safer than any of those cities.
Start with the skies. Few cities can boast the protection in the
air of Washington, which is guarded by round-the-clock combat air
patrols, two Air Force bases and a Naval Air Station, and strict
restrictions on the use of its airspace.
Also, the city has few of the high vantage points terrorists need
to produce any substantial effect from the release of chemical or
biological weapons. Other than the Washington Monument, a slender
obelisk that towers 555 feet above the city, no building here is
permitted to stand taller than the U.S. Capitol, which is 288 feet
high. Few buildings in the city or near-in suburbs have more than
14 floors. Terrorists would need to drop poisons from much higher
to bring about widespread damage.
Neither would it be easy for terrorists to copy the Japanese cult
that, in 1995, released sarin gas on three lines of Tokyo's subway
system, killing 12 and sending more than 5,500 to the hospital. It
would be hard to harm as many people because Washington's Metro
system is used by only a small fraction of the number of people who
ride in Tokyo, where subway staffers wearing white gloves push
passengers on at each stop so the doors can close.
Plus, the Metro system has installed sensors to detect chemical
and biological weapons and send appropriate warnings. And, as many
riders can attest, the system is heavily policed, is under constant
video surveillance and is well maintained-factors that also deter
Terrorists could resort to a conventional ground-based
explosion-setting off a bomb. But heat and light-which bombs
generate in abundance-degrade or destroy many chemical and
biological agents. Most of the deaths, injuries and damage
resulting from such an attack would result from the explosion-not
the chemical or biological agents.
The same holds true for a "dirty bomb" or radioactive-based
explosion. The power of the conventional explosion-and any ensuing
panic-would create far more damage than the low-level radioactive
material such as americium or cesium that most likely would be
involved. At least for now, terrorists are far less likely to
possess weapons-grade uranium or plutonium. Because of the
low-grade material and the containment of a ground-based explosion,
a dirty bomb would travel only a matter of blocks before the
radiation threat declined significantly.
Contrary to Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, who asked Congress for
millions more in first-responder and emergency preparedness funds,
Washington Mayor Tony Williams told a House panel recently that the
city is receiving all the money it needed to prepare to prevent or
respond to terrorist attacks. The city has used this money to take
some common-sense precautions, such as tightening security,
removing some newspaper and trash bins and deploying canine units
to patrol for explosive devices.
And the contributions of the federal government-the combat air
patrols, maintenance of restricted air space, special trucks that
travel the city at times of heightened alert to detect signs of
chemical, biological or nuclear weapons-have been and continue to
be quite substantial.
Yes, Washington probably will continue to be a top target for those
wishing to make war on America. But Washington appears to be far
better prepared to limit or prevent such attacks than it was on
Sept. 10, 2001.
-Dexter Ingram, a former naval flight officer, is a threat
assessment specialist and database editor at The Heritage
First appeared in The Washington Times.