Safer in Washington?


Safer in Washington?

Apr 28, 2003 3 min read

Senior Policy Analyst

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 attacks.

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 Foundation (

First appeared in The Washington Times.