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The Times October 25, 2004

Living with fear in Washington

By Elaine Monaghan, Times Online special correspondent

The climate of fear in Washington is palpable and a little crazy. Even the odd Senator is thinking of heading for the hills

You don't have to have a death wish to live here, but it helps.

Take this week. My spouse came home white as a sheet after a Pentagon briefing on how to respond to a nuclear attack. The next day, a reliable contact cheerily revealed mid-interview that he was planning to abandon his home on Capitol Hill because terrorists were bound to get their hands on a loose nuke.

Clearly, I need to move, or branch out. Washington is swimming with experts who get paid to worry about these things, and I know most of them. Apparently, President Bush and John Kerry know them too, because they have made it very, very clear that Americans will perish if they vote for the wrong man.

Dick Cheney, even in happier times not known for his playful repartee, spelled it out for anyone who had not been listening. Our greatest threat was nuclear bombs ending up in American cities, and Kerry would have no clue how to handle it. Who said the Cold War was over?

Kerry said the world had grown more dangerous under Bush. He pointed out that 3,646 people had been killed in terrorist attacks in 2003 almost twice as many as the year before. Osama bin Laden, meanwhile, assuming he has not decided to assume the mantle of a pacifist, "may already have ordered up another major attack".

Thus will millions of voters in the world's sole superpower enter the polling booth on November 2 and extend a trembling hand, in full knowledge that casting their ballot gives them control over their own survival. I hope the election officials have ambulances, oxygen and a warehouse full of Valium on hand.

Thank goodness I don't have a vote.

Soon, I will take to the hills with boxes of tinned salmon, water-purifying tablets and night-vision goggles. You know it makes sense. Mark Dayton, the Democratic Senator from Minnesota, was so terrified by a CIA/FBI intelligence briefing that he received recently that he did the only sane thing. He shut his office on Capitol Hill and headed home until after the election. His explanation sounded entirely reasonable to me. Judge for yourself.

The worst-case scenario the senator was presented with that al-Qaeda would blitz American cities with multiple weapons of mass destruction was too much to bear. What is bizarre about his behaviour is not that he was the only one spooked enough to get out of Washington, but that his fellow members of Congress did not run screaming for the hills behind him.

Perhaps we are all still suffering from PSSD (Post-September 11 Stress Disorder.) Even the smartest among us are hearing the call to flee. John Pike, the entirely sane director of a seriously nerdy website admitted to me this week that he was contemplating a move away from his home on Capitol Hill, a stone's throw from Congress. You will remember that the white-domed structure was the target missed when the fourth plane crashed in Pennsylvania, and that it is al-Qaeda's habit to go after missed targets. Mr Pike had heard of some "very attractive condos" going up safely on the other side of the Potomac, in Virginia. "I'm going to have to get my bomb effect calculator out and see if we'd be out of the bomb blast zone," he said. He was laughing, but he wasn't joking. I had to tie a knot in my tongue and count to 100 to avoid asking him in all seriousness whether my own zip code was far enough away from Capitol Hill. Then I remembered that I live near the CIA and I was toast either way.

So what exactly is the plan if the capital comes under attack? Judging by last time, there isn't one. After being evacuated from the State Department, I had to abandon my car by the roadside after 100 feet because the city was in gridlock. As fighter jets boomed overhead, flak-jacketed law enforcement officers screamed at people to go the other way ("Which way?" I asked, "There's a plane still loose and no one knows where it's going") and President Bush headed for his bunker in the desert, it was painfully clear we were being left to fend for ourselves.

Mr Pike helpfully gave me even more food for thought. Being a science type, he went to a police briefing after the attacks to hear about evacuation plans. It turned out there were no plans, no air raid sirens, no ways to tell the population that they should take cover. "We are in a unique position," Mr Pike explained, compared to the populations of every other American city. "They are just concerned about the president, the cabinet and Congress. Everybody else is just part of the body count."

All of which made me wonder if it might not be such a bad idea to pay a little more attention to those ominous road signs I keep seeing. They say things like "be alert" and direct you to a toll-free number to report suspicious activity. One of the scarier ones says: "Don't be afraid. Be ready." Just to cheer you up it sends you to www.ready.gov, the website set up by the Department of Homeland Security to explain what to do in the event of a terrorist attack. It is just about as helpful as the advice they used to give you to get under a table when the bomb comes.

The department clearly needs to change its advert to "Be very afraid, be very ready and take six weeks off work". Preparing the emergency kit it recommends would be akin to packing for a trip to the moon with quintuplets. In any case, the threats described biological, nuclear, chemical - are so terrifying that the only possible response is to transform yourself into a rabbit, enjoy the headlights and wait to be crushed, hopefully once your offspring are all safely into their eighties.

At least we can count on the Pentagon to come up with some smart ways to counter the next terrorist attack. With all those zillions of dollars and brains and post-September 11 passions, they must surely have something new up their sleeves? They have, after all, formulated what I heard one clever defence expert this week call a "whack-a-mole" strategy for catching terrorists. It seems to be working like a dream.

Apparently the latest technology involves a bunch of white plastic and a lot of hot air. I saw it with my own eyes a few weeks ago as it floated in the skies over Washington. Some people apparently thought it was an Unidentified Flying Object and whipped out their cameras. In fact it was a blimp, whose aerial surveillance skills were being tested. As it bobbed and swayed across town, following me from Dupont Circle to the concrete jungle of the Energy Department, I asked myself if al-Qaeda had come up with a new way of attacking us. I half expected to see a militant hang over the edge and launch a rocket-propelled grenade launcher.

So imagine my relief when I learned it was in fact what the Army called a "free-flying mobile aerial reconnaissance platform". Apparently, it can take accurate photographs of events on the ground from higher than 10,000 feet, well out of the range of many weapons systems. It is so clever that it can fly for hours after it has been pierced by gunfire, even without a crew. I can think of a few poor souls in Baghdad who would like to see the military dispense with the testing, throw caution to the wind and send a few to the Middle East.

Elaine Monaghan is a Washington-based correspondent for The Times

Copyright 2004, Copyright 2004 Times Newspapers Ltd.