Rich Cooper

Oct 28, 2010

If you’ve lived any length of time inside the Washington Beltway, you’ve come to expect certain things: awful commutes to/from work; an area that always overhypes and over-reacts to miniscule amounts of snow; road construction that never ends; and the complete meltdown of its sports teams – most notably the Washington Capitals during the playoffs.

Despite all of these issues, there are enormous benefits to living here. We have amazing museums, some wonderful parks, good schools and the area has always seemed to be an economically resilient place, despite national conditions. For all of these pros and cons, there can be no denying that the risks to living in the Washington Beltway area are increasing.

It’s an almost default answer to point to the poor safety record of the region’s Metro system, the seemingly increasing number of pedestrian/bike accidents and the regular (and unfortunate) crime statistics. But the recent sniper-esque shootings at regional military facilities and the arrest of a Pakistani, naturalized U.S. citizen for planning to attack crowded Metro stations are giving all of us in the National Capital Region a bit of concern.  

Last week, I had two different friends who don’t know one another talk about seeing black fatigued, machine gun wielding police officers on foot patrol outside the on-ramp entrance of the CIA Headquarters off of the GW Parkway. Both of these people have lived here for years and regularly drive past that area going to and from work, but they had never seen anything like that before. Whether that is a reaction to the recent military facility shootings is anyone’s guess, but there is an increasing edginess to life in the Beltway.

I think if you talked to anyone who lives here, they would all tell you that they know Washington is a prime target for terrorists and other acts of violence. We’ve had our share of people doing the unorthodox as well as violence. With bombs going off in the U.S. Capitol Building (1950s and 1980s); people driving a van up to the Washington Monument and claiming to have explosives (early 80s); enraged and disillusioned bigots entering the Holocaust Museum with a gun (last year); and anthrax infected office buildings (2001), we’ve seen our fair share of action.

While anyone who lived here during 9/11 remembers the grief and shock of the Pentagon assault that claimed the lives of many of our friends and neighbors, I don’t think it can compare to the real fear this area had during the sniper spree of John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo in the fall 2002. The complete randomness of those shootings changed the way we pumped our gas, took our kids to school and lived our lives for weeks. As soon as the two snipers were caught, we all seemed to put our Beltway-busy lives back into whatever we might call a “normal” category.

With the recent shootings at the USMC Museum in Quantico, the Pentagon and the military recruiting station in Virginia, as well as the recent threats to Metro, DC area restaurants, and more, it’s way past time for us to adjust our normal. I’m not talking about living our lives in fear or cowering from doing the things that make our lives enjoyable and unique. I’m talking about all of us doing our part to improve our situational awareness of our surroundings. We must all be aware of what’s going on around us.

It’s been fairly obvious to me there has been increased police presence on Metro, the downtown DC area, as well as the U.S. Capitol Building and White House. U.S. Secret Service, Metropolitan Police, U.S. Park Police and Metro Transit Police have been very visible and not at all shy about stopping to ask questions about things that seem out of the ordinary. While there is a comfort in their presence and action, it does not take away the fact that this region is really starting to come to grips with its new normal.  

DHS’ recent outreach to federal, state and local law enforcement warning of lone-shooters and encouraging renewed vigilance and skill readiness cannot be (nor should it be) dismissed as a “C-Y-A” exercise. It’s not. No one wants to see anything happen anywhere, but all of the trends are pointing in a direction that something is about to happen. Despite every herculean effort to stop that something from happening, there will come a time. It will occur.  How we react to it is truly up to us. We can be panic filled and confused, a natural reaction to such an incident, or we can take a deep breath and think through what is going on around us and act accordingly. That requires planning, partnering and preparing for emergencies in every form.

It may seem like an over-cliched catch phrase but the ads that DC’s Emergency Management Agency have been running on radio stations, and DHS’ Ready Program about “Having a Plan,” really do make the difference. Candid conversations with family members and co-workers about staying in touch with one another need to take on increased importance. So does taking note of your surroundings and emergency exits.  

I’m curious how many people have really ever paid attention to emergency evacuation procedures that are posted on the various Metro cars? The information has been posted for years, but have you really ever taken note of what you’re supposed to do?

By making these comments, I am not trying to induce any sense of fear about a pending act of violence. I honestly don’t know when something is going to happen, but I have believed for some time that it is not a question of “if” something will occur. Something is going to happen. I know it, and I accept it. I don’t know if that makes me a fatalist, but I’m pretty sure it makes me a realist, and it is why I’m asking my co-workers, friends and neighbors – are you ready?

The answer to that question can either be one of comfort or concern, but only an honest answer will suffice. Living in the Beltway often finds any number of dishonest answers produced for whatever “spin-worthy occasion,” but if we’re really going to be resilient in the face of the threats around us, only an honest answer will do. Our survival will depend on it.

This piece was originally posted on Security Debrief.


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