Vulnerable Washington

In Washington, it could have been much worse. As a military strike, while the terrorists' attack succeeded in New York, it failed in the capital -- but for reasons that we cannot depend upon to protect us in the future. The bravery of a few passengers on the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania prevented it from reaching its target, and for reasons as yet unknown the plane originating at Dulles that was streaking toward the White House veered and struck the Pentagon, killing a large number of people but failing to hit any command-related functions.

The dangers now are evident. Just as hijackings were epidemic three decades ago, so we face the risk that new hijackers will follow the example of these attacks. Just as the terrorists returned to the World Trade Center, so their successors may try to finish the job in the capital, if not tomorrow, then a few years from now.

The highest levels of our government are astonishingly vulnerable. All our major national institutions -- the executive branch, the Congress, the Supreme Court -- are located within a short distance of each other. On any given working day, virtually the entire leadership may predictably be found there. Meanwhile, planes are regularly taking off and landing at Ronald Reagan National Airport only seconds away.

There are short- and long-run steps that could be taken to improve the security of the government. We can all think of some of the short-run measures, such as tighter airport security. During the State of the Union address, when the entire government gathers in one building, all air traffic in and out of the Washington area (and some distance beyond) should be suspended. But the failed attack on the capital should have alerted us to the need to consider longer-run changes.

Here are some questions worth asking:

  • Is it feasible to protect Washington's air space with a busy commercial airport adjacent to it? One alternative would be to turn National Airport into an official facility and move all commercial flights to Dulles and Baltimore-Washington International. The capital's air space would then be entirely off-limits and more easily defended.
  • Is it necessary to locate all the top institutions of our government in Washington? Yes, proximity does improve communication even with the technology we have today. But those advantages need to be weighed against the risks of devastating damage. It is time to think seriously about dispersing executive departments and the Supreme Court to other places in the country.
  • Does the chief executive of the government have to sleep next to his main office? Why not at least open up the possibility that the president and his family might choose to make Camp David rather than the White House their primary residence? More high-level meetings could take place there as well.
  • Since airplanes can be flown from controls on the ground, is it possible to develop a means of overriding the cockpit whenever a plane has deviated from its assigned flight path and appears to be hijacked?

Perhaps some of these suggestions are infeasible; I don't claim to have the answers. But as we contemplate the devastation of September 11, we ought to be thinking about how to avoid even greater damage on some future day when America comes under attack.

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