Washington at War

sixty years ago, following Japan's surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Washington underwent a striking transformation. To facilitate the ensuing mobilization, temporary office structures sprang up like mushrooms in the green space along the National Mall. Across the Potomac, the massive, fortress-like Pentagon was rushed to completion in just 16 months. Today, in the aftermath of even bloodier sneak attacks on the American mainland, the nation is again being placed on a war footing, and Washington again is undergoing stark and dramatic changes.

The response to the terrorist assaults of Sept. 11, which crumpled the twin towers of New York City's World Trade Center and scorched a deep scar into the mighty Pentagon, however, requires another sort of mobilization. The war to be waged now is against an elusive, stateless enemy who fights by clandestine means and who employs agents, as we now know, who may be living and training within our own borders.

This time, accordingly, the capital will see no rush of new construction-other than what's needed to close the charred gash in the Pentagon. There will be no need to house massive new organizations to coordinate crash programs to manufacture the ships and aircraft and tanks needed to wage conventional warfare. Washington now must primarily mobilize to expand and improve its domestic and overseas intelligence and beef up internal security to protect potential targets-military and civilian. Much of the new war effort, as Vice President Dick Cheney has noted, will take place "in the shadows" and be carried out "quietly, without any discussion, using sources and methods that are available to our intelligence agencies."

The physical appearance of the nation's capital may not change markedly during the months-and, in all probability, years-it takes to wage this new war, but the focus and role of government and of George W. Bush's presidency already have fundamentally shifted. Talk of reducing the size of government and the national debt has given way to requests for big increases in spending for defense and intelligence and call-ups of reserves. Bickering over whether to dip into the Social Security trust fund has ceased. And an administration that once seemed indifferent to the views of other governments is now urgently seeking to build international alliances to battle terrorist threats around the globe.

Perhaps most significant is the shift in the often ambivalent attitudes that Americans express about those who work in the public sector. The televised images of heroic rescue efforts being carried out by police, fire and emergency medical personnel have renewed the country's appreciation of-and gratitude for-those who not only devote their lives to public service but sometimes give their lives, as well.

A new recognition has emerged that the role of government must now loom larger in our lives as more stringent police powers are invoked to try to foil terrorist plots and attacks, not just abroad, but here on American soil. Immigration controls are sure to be tightened, and the shocking use of hijacked civilian airliners as deadly missiles puts our entire air travel system, from airport security to air traffic control, in an entirely different context. It may well call into question proposals to achieve cost savings by assigning such functions to private contractors.

Americans also now recognize-as federal employees have realized for some time now-that those who work for our government bear the burden of being symbolic targets for the wrath of domestic and foreign terrorists who challenge our nation's systems and its values. The names of the public servants who lost their lives at the Pentagon and in New York City on Sept. 11 must be added to an honor roll of victims of terrorist attacks that, sadly, is all too long. Many of the casualties have been absorbed by the military: the Marines killed in the October 1983 bombing of their barracks in Lebanon, the Air Force personnel who died in the June 1996 Khobar Towers explosion in Saudi Arabia, and the sailors of the USS Cole attacked last October in Yemen. Civilian government workers bore the brunt of the April 1995 bombing of Oklahoma City's Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building-carried out by home-grown terrorist Timothy McVeigh-and the August 1998 explosions at the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

As it always does when Washington goes to war, the public has closed ranks behind its government. Bush's approval rating soared in the wake of his declaration of all-out war against the amorphous terrorist networks responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks and against all those who lend support or shelter to them. In the face of what is likely to be a long and difficult war with no guarantee of immediate or clearly recognizable victories, the test for the President will be to maintain the support he now has.


Dick Kirschten is a contributing editor for National Journal. Contact him at dkirschten@govexec.com.
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