This Again?

04.18.13

Washington Unnerved by Boston Bombing, Ricin Letters: Echoes of 9/11

From bombings to ricin letters, Washington is having a war-on-terror flashback this week. Lauren Ashburn on the return of anxiety—and whether we’re better prepared this time.

It began with the sound of the helicopters buzzing across the skies over my D.C. neighborhood. That sinking feeling that all is not right with the world.

Lying in bed Monday night, hours after the Boston bombings, my mind flashed back to the tense period after 9/11, when fighter jets roared endlessly through the night sky and greeted me at 4 the next morning after I’d covered the hijacked plane that decimated the Pentagon.

And here we are again. A terror attack. Poisoned letters sent to our leaders. And a nagging sense that life is not as safe as the day before.

The stress, once such a familiar part of our daily lives, is back. Then it was creepy anthrax mailings that killed five people and infected 17 others. Now police are evacuating Senate office buildings, the FBI is investigating, and coffee-shop kibitzing has pivoted from Monday’s Boston blasts to D.C.’s ricin letters sent to President Obama and two lawmakers.

“I certainly don’t want to take my kids to watch the Marine Corps Marathon,” says Susanna Quinn, a Washington native and mother of two whose grandfather was a senator. Reflecting on who might have planted the Boston bombs, she tells me: “The unknown is terrifying. Is this person part of a group or a cell?”

Just as with 9/11, the ricin-laden letters come on the heels of a devastating terror attack, and we’re left wondering if they’re related, if this is a coordinated assault. While law enforcement is indicating that there appears to be no connection, the same can’t be said for the mounting sense of fear and unease.

Angela Phillips, a mother of three, says she hates the memories this week has unearthed. She has two children attending Virginia Tech who were on campus during the 2007 massacre there.

If she doesn’t hear from her children on social media for a few hours, she gets worried. “It’s awful being a parent and knowing that lightning does strike twice, copycats are out there, and that it’s going to happen again.”

Phillips contends that the emotions are worse this time around. “Before, we never thought it could happen,” she says. “Now you know what it can ignite.”

Once again, cable news channels are wall to wall with bombing and ricin coverage. Reporters fanning out from Capitol Hill to Boylston Street are anchoring shows from the scene, breathlessly reporting every nuance and showing pictures of the victims and intended victims. Even former Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge—once the town crier of color-coded alerts—is saturating the airwaves as he did a dozen years ago.

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People stand behind police tape after law enforcement closed down Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House on April 15. (Alex Brandon/AP)
Maybe we’re a McDonald’s instant-gratification nation with short-term memories about terror.

CNN chief congressional correspondent Dana Bash—while reporting live on the suspicious letters—recalled the sense of déjà vu that has struck many Washingtonians. She was reporting in 2001 when anthrax-laced letters were delivered to newsrooms and two senators’ offices.

“It was eerie,” Bash said. “We got word that there was a suspicious package that went to Senator Tom Daschle’s office.” She and other reporters ran to the scene. Anyone who may have been near the anthrax letters was instructed to go on the powerful antibiotic Cipro for 10 days.

Turned out the letters were not related to 9/11, though to this day there are plenty of unanswered questions. And unanswered questions keep feeding the television news cycle this week, from Wednesday’s erroneous reports on CNN and the AP that police had arrested a suspect in Boston to an accurate nighttime report that authorities had arrested a Mississippi man on charges of sending the ricin letters.

Still, some people are adamant that the level of fear in Washington is lower than in the past because we have taken precautionary measures—all mail to Congress is now screened at outside facilities—and know what it is like to be terrorized.

“I think Washingtonians are being more like Israelis: f--k ’em, come and get us,” says Paul Begala, a Democratic strategist and former Clinton White House aide. “We were really freaked out after 9/11, but I don’t sense fear this time.”

On that fateful September morning, Begala watched as the plane crashed into the Pentagon with some of his friends on board: “It was the worst day of my life.” But the next day he sent his boys on the Metro to school a few blocks from the Capitol, unafraid. “Soft targets like Metro are still as crowded,” he notes.

Maybe we’re a McDonald’s instant-gratification nation with short-term memories. I’m ashamed to say that I didn’t remember that five people died during the anthrax episodes—even though I covered the story in Washington and had to get Cipro treatment myself. Or maybe Begala is right, and we’re safer than we were, despite the nervousness aroused by the last few days.

Even Quinn, with her second thoughts about safety, says she believes Washington has become anesthetized. “We’ve been living in a world expecting the next attack,” she says.