A Washingtonian Looks At His City

Perhaps it's just me, a Brit living in America. But Washington had a distinctly orphaned feeling as September drew to its unhappy close. The nation's heart bled for those burned and buried in New York, and for the all-American heroes dead in Pennsylvania--but not (or certainly not to the same degree) for the Federal City and the loss of one of the Pentagon's five facets. My friends in New York received shoals of anxious e-mail to see how they were. Those in Washington did not.

Why? Certainly, the Twin Towers aflame and tumbling, and the last stand in the skies over Pittsburgh, are inherently dramatic, even inspirational. Pity and terror, it seems, are not so readily summoned by the image of civil servants being dug out of bureaucratic wreckage. Yet think about it. If the passengers over Pennsylvania had not resisted so gallantly, we might be looking at the hole where the White House used to be, or at the stump of the Washington Monument, or the shattered dome of the Capitol. Perhaps that would have cut nearer to the quick.

We Washingtonians have always known our city is not loved. Even the president, that ghastly week, had been engaged in a provincial tour designed to emphasize his suspicions of the place. Since so many "locals" are in fact from somewhere else or in transit elsewhere, there's even a certain reluctance to identify with the city's home football team, the Redskins. Still, as I walk the streets I can't shake the feeling, "What if?" What if that fourth plane had come scything in? A near miss on the targets I just mentioned, or a comprehensive on-the-ground conflagration, could have destroyed the Supreme Court, or the Folger Shakespeare Library with its irreplaceable folios. Or the Library of Congress, or the Nagasaki cherry trees around the Tidal Basin, or the memorial to Mr. Jefferson. How would I be feeling now? I cannot begin to answer the question.

But I've found a clue in the way Washingtonians have rallied to a different symbol, not destroyed but nonetheless compromised. For the past several weeks we have resided in what I call "the only other capital in the world that does not have its own airport." ("Other" because Nicosia's airport has been closed ever since it was placed in no man's land by the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974.) Our old National Airport was a wondrous thing; in its dinky pre-2000 incarnation it looked rather like a railway station and was almost as easy to reach. The updated glossy version, named for Ronald Reagan, is the proud and airy "hub" for US Airways--even more convenient than the old, and a splendid shopping mall to boot.

Now the national government is debating whether to close it, permanently, and Washingtonians are springing to its defense. A huge meeting was recently held at which our voteless congressional delegate, Ms. Eleanor Holmes Norton, and the civic leaders of the adjoining states all spoke up. To close the airport would be to "ground freedom." It would be to surrender to terrorism and nihilism. It would impede the flow of lobbyists and lawyers up and down the Northeastern corridor. (Actually, I made that bit up.) But there were some banal economic points to register as well: the airport is a major employer and an important engine of the local economy. And while this was going on, and I was applauding the protest, I couldn't help thinking: what if the terrorists had hit the magnificent overarching roof of Union Station? In the aftermath, Amtrak provides the venue for random journalistic meetings, for our formerly airplane-based, on-the-move conferences. Without it, Washington would be all but closed to the world. But even with it, you cannot escape the question: will the capital city become even more isolated from the nation? Talk of Potomac Fever.

The moral philosopher Michael Walzer once wrote, in his book "The Company of Critics," that he didn't know anyone who had ever actually made a special trip to Washington unless it was to protest. School trips and lobbying aside, this is more or less true of every non-Washingtonian I know. I look up at the sky, or out of my window at dusk, and I see a prospect quite clear of planes. If I hear an aircraft, it is sure to be military, or a helicopter taking our chief residents to a "more secure location." This is something more than a crimp in my travel plans. It's more like a warning of a choked artery. I find myself echoing cliches and agreeing with the conventional wisdom, something I am normally loath to do. No, nothing will ever feel quite the same again. I teach in New York, and I used to teach in Pittsburgh. I've paid my respects at Ground Zero on Chambers Street, and I will in due course make a trip to the site in Pennsylvania, too. But if I want to be sure that all is changed, I don't need to turn on the television--or leave home.