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A View From Capitol Hill

Friday, 28 September 2001 12:00 AM

Although I lost no loved ones or even the remotest of acquaintances, the events of Sept. 11 continue to weigh heavily on me, which I am sure must be the prevailing mindset among other American.

Sept. 11, 2001, marked a watershed in American history and will forever remain etched in the American psyche. As horrific as it was, the incident has united Americans as never before and has brought us face to face with ourselves.

In Washington, the weather is just now discernibly evolving from summer to fall. Only a few leaves have fallen, the temperature is still warm, but chillier at night, and darkness does not yet come early. This has been a season of calm and happiness in our nation's capital.

There were no memorable protest marches this summer. The city was unusually pleasant and the atmosphere unusually benign. The club scene in Washington was, as it is known to be, as happening as ever, but was perhaps a bit more mellow. It was a summer that was memorable only because nothing memorable burst upon the scene.

So slow was it that a news story about a missing intern and her relationship with a married congressman dominated the headlines and the airwaves for months, which indicates the tameness of events local and global.

Only a week after the summer's end, on the weekend following the Labor Day weekend, Ahmad Shah Masoud, commander of the northern alliance resistance fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan, was severely wounded in an assassination attempt. He died a few days later.

Because he was a friend of my husband, I felt I knew Masoud, although I never met him. We were to visit him in Afghanistan by the end of this year. My husband's apocalyptic alarm over Masoud's death struck me as dramatic. I, as many others, failed to sense the impending doom that the news of Masoud's death forebode.

A meeting was arranged at the White House to warn of an impending yet undefined attack; the time was set for 2:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 11.

That morning, my visiting relatives and I were stunned and dismayed at the unfolding terror engulfing New York City. As rumors began to fly that Washington was the next target and the Pentagon may have been hit, I instinctively packed a survival bag in case all hell broke loose. As I looked out the window of my Capitol Hill townhouse, I could see government employees who park on our street scurrying to their cars to join a long escape procession out of the city.

Amidst this chaotic scene, my husband returned from work to make sure everything was OK, and then hurried back toward his office at the Rayburn House Office Building, one of three congressional offices across from the Capitol Building.

As he proceeded, a loud BOOM shook the air. Not realizing it was a sonic boom of one of our military aircraft, our eyes met in horror. No one knew what to expect next. As the outrage and fear spread throughout Washington, confused people in the Senate and House office buildings were evacuated from their offices. Those unfortunate souls who do not reside on Capitol Hill were stranded with no place to go.

As my husband's dislocated staffers descended upon my construction-strewn home, my mother, cousin and I were tasked to stock up provisions for a crisis of unknown duration.

A walk down 2nd St., SE, past Pete's Diner and then up Pennsylvania Avenue to the mini-market next to the Hawk n' Dove was a strange experience.

Despite news reports that all members of Congress were safely sequestered in an "undisclosed safe location," many confused-looking pin-bearing members of Congress were pacing the streets, spilling out of the cafes and bars, or with staff in tow, had set up shop at the curbside tables. This had all the trappings of a terrorist shooting gallery.

The paranoia and fear was just as prevalent in the mini-market, as people lined up to buy basic provisions. Being a West Coaster, I knew the tortillas wouldn't be sold out. The beaming Asian-American shopkeeper cheerfully reminded us to come again soon as we checked out of the store.

Later in the day, as I walked eastward up Pennsylvania Ave. to Frager's Hardware Store, a change was already being felt on Capitol Hill. A heretofore busy boulevard was now like a ghost town; adding to the eerie ambience was the presence of fatigue-clad National Guardsmen, complete with flak vests, buying items from the hardware store. There was a sense of confusion and total lack of direction.

As the day drew to a close, many members of Congress made their way to the main headquarters for the Capitol Hill police, not far from the Senate office buildings. There, they were given the barest of briefings, and over a speakerphone, Speaker Hastert and Minority Leader Gephardt announced that business would not start again until the next day.

A protest flared among House members: Would not an empty capitol be seen as an unmistakable symbol of fear and defeat?

After heated discussion, a compromise was finally reached. The leadership agreed that they would present a strong, tough, and inspirational speech on the Capitol steps, and that all members would be free to stand behind them. Unfortunately, that's not the way it went. The leaders obviously had been told that there was some risk at being at the Capitol, and hurried their words and then tried to hurry away. That's not what our country needed.

I am proud to say that it was my husband who had the presence of mind to grab another member by the arm and begin to sing God Bless America. This is one of the few things that members of Congress did which inspired the public. It certainly reflected the growing patriotism and unity of purpose that the vast multitude of Americans has demonstrated since that fateful day.

It is interesting to note that of my international acquaintances, it was my Russian friends who were the first to send e-mails of support, offering strong solidarity, sympathizing and relating it to Chechnya-related bombings in Moscow. The Russian people have had to endure their share of suffering, and America's nose had finally been bloodied by the fist of reality.

Those overseas who sympathize with us in our heartache now know we are capable of sympathizing with them.

It is a different Capitol now. It has changed in both spirit and in appearance.

Scouts and carefree families no longer swarm the streets, but instead barricades and flak-jacketed guards stand as testimony to the crime that has been committed against the people of this nation.

No one is too important to have his or her trunk searched. Restaurants around town, like Taro Sushi, have empty tables and open parking spaces. Reagan National Airport, near to the monuments and government buildings, remains closed. Numerous streets around government buildings, including the Capitol and the White House are now obstructed by roadblocks.

People are kinder to one another and relations between people of different races are more tension-free than ever before.

We can be confident that eventually Washington will return to the city that it was. However, the unburdened life of younger Americans, whether their generation be X or Y, will never be the same.

Our worldview as younger Americans now and forever will be altered. Whatever else happens in George W.'s war on terrorism, the image of the World Trade Towers crumbling and the dramatic unity of our people are forever burned into our consciousness.

Copyright 2001 by United Press International. All rights reserved.

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Although I lost no loved ones or even the remotest of acquaintances, the events of Sept. 11 continue to weigh heavily on me, which I am sure must be the prevailing mindset among other American. Sept. 11, 2001, marked a watershed in American history and will forever ...
Friday, 28 September 2001 12:00 AM
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