Get local news delivered straight to your phone

I notice the guitar because a Walter Reed Army Medical Center cop notices it, too. He stands 3 feet away from the strange red thing leaning against a fence outside the hospital grounds along Georgia Avenue NW. The cop undresses the instrument with his mini-flashlight, running his light along its black neck and on down.

The guitar reveals nothing. Only that it is plastic, and it is a toy, and it has no intact strings, and the strings that are left are jutting out like raw spaghetti. Only that it has been left unattended two nights after those planes hit the World Trade Center towers, the Pentagon, and a quiet Pennsylvania field.

A peeling black sticker is stuck to the toy guitar’s body. “Rock Star,” it says.

A second Walter Reed cop joins the first officer, then a third. And then a fourth, Lt. Denise Laws. It is 11:15 p.m. The four cops hover over the thing. The lights from their cruisers are flashing. They say little. Somebody called in this toy guitar; somebody thought it sinister enough, threatening enough. It had no business being here. It might be a bomb.

Laws listens for that sound, that tick-tick-tick. Instead, she only hears a cricket chirping from behind the toy. Still unsure about this thing, she says: “I’m not going to pick it up just yet.”

Laws radios the Metropolitan Police Department. Within minutes, two officers speed up to the scene. Officer Jerry Bethea and his partner, whom he calls “the Rookie,” walk over to the guitar. Bethea orders the Rookie to pick up the guitar. The rookie complies. He shakes it, flips it over—no batteries—swings it by its neck. “It’s just a toy,” Bethea concludes with a quick grin. “If it weighed any more…”

The Rookie then tosses the guitar into the back seat of his cruiser. They will write up a PD81—a property report—and that is that for the toy guitar.

Sometimes a guitar is still just a guitar. Even two days after a terrorist attack.

Things don’t mean what they mean anymore. That’s the first thing to go. The way the sky sounds is different: quiet, the city’s white noise gone. Except for that one damn military plane circling above. You look at the Capitol and the Washington Monument differently now, actually expecting to see a plane smack into them. The crowd roaring at a soccer match in Arlington is jarring, too: It sounds like people running and screaming from another attack. And a street closing no longer means a parade or a block party.

Even the sirens sound different. Before, you could ignore those police sirens. Now they sound louder and fiercer than any sirens you’ve heard before. They’re menacing. They frighten you. They keep you up at night. Are they heading toward another explosion? Another in the long line of bomb threats?

Then there are the new things you notice. Post-Sept. 11, the District’s landscape is changing. L’Enfant did not have designs for these things. But they will come if they aren’t already here. The White House has become an encampment fenced in and surrounded by yellow police tape. All the way to H Street. That yellow tape extending past the fancy downtown hotels and restaurants and convenience stores. You can forget ever reopening Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House.

The sky has gone empty and might stay that way. There is talk of shutting down National Airport for good. Too close. Too tempting

for terrorists.

In the future, access to downtown—federal downtown—will be curtailed. Get used to the comforting architecture of the concrete barrier and the warm embrace of the metal detector. Make friends with your Capitol Police and your Park Police, because you’ll be seeing a lot of them.

This city has always been buffeted by outside forces—politicians, lobbyists, presidents, interns. Since the Civil War, outsiders—whether they were military personnel or Vietnam protesters or New York crack dealers—have made their influences permanent, altering the city, leaving some very noticeable scars. In the way we travel, in the places we can get to, in the way we feel about this city. And it has always taken us a long time to notice.

Until now. Within a few short hours on Tuesday of last week, terrorists didn’t just destroy the World Trade Center and a slice of the Pentagon—they laid waste to the way the District was before.

The District never thought it would be attacked. Throughout much of its history, its mix of self-important politicians and rural tenants never thought the place was valuable enough. The grand marbled architecture, the classical design, the fact that it’s the hub of American politics—none of this altered the conventional wisdom that the city was a provincial patchwork, not much more than a small Southern village.

It was a village built on swampland that was too muggy in the summer, too dreary in the winter, bought up under a deal made by George Washington for $67 an acre. Critics in the press of the time thought the Founding Father had been robbed.

Opinions didn’t change when Congress moved in, at the turn of the 19th century, or in the years leading up to the Civil War. City life scarcely left visitors with a stunning impression. Charles Dickens, visiting Washington in 1842, mapped out the city thus: “spacious avenues that begin in nothing and lead nowhere; streets a mile long that only want houses, roads, and inhabitants; public buildings that need but a public to be complete; and ornaments of great thoroughfares which only need great thoroughfares to ornament…”

At the dawn of the Civil War, Lincoln’s military brass gave little thought to protecting their hamlet. Despite wild rumors of a coup among congressmen and the military, despite the Richmond Examiner calling on Maryland and Virginia residents to seize the capital, few believed the District faced any great threat.

So the city went unprepared. Despite the surrounding ring of fortifications, Col. Charles P. Stone, the District’s appointed inspector general, observed: “The only regular troops near the capital of the country were three or four hundred marines at the Marine barracks, and three officers and 53 men of ordnance at the Washington Arsenal.”

In April 1861, as Virginia troops were preparing to take over Washington, President Abraham Lincoln mobilized a militia and waited. On April 15, Lincoln called for Northern troops. Ten tense days later, New York troops arrived.

That didn’t mean the District was safe. On at least two occasions, the city could have been forced to surrender. After the battle at Bull Run that July, Confederate troops underestimated the thoroughness of their victory and hesitated. If they hadn’t, the capital would have been the South’s for the taking. Three years later, Confederate forces showed up in Silver Spring. But a delay in their orders gave Union troops enough time to arrive to protect Washington.

Support City Paper!

$
$
$

Your contribution is appreciated.

By that time, the city was transformed. According to the Federal Writer’s Project Guide to Washington, “All its activities centered about the war. Its parks and squares were camping grounds; its churches became hospitals.”

But of course the heightened awareness didn’t stop Lincoln’s assassination, on April 14, 1865, at Ford’s Theatre.

Just as the District awakened only slowly to the realities of the Civil War, the city underestimated the impact of World War I. No one knew what to do about the population explosion that followed: The city’s citizenry grew by about 100,000 people between 1916 and 1919, hitting 455,428 that year. Racial tensions ignited riots in 1919. Between 30 and 40 people were killed.

Still, the District didn’t learn what war could do to a city. Access and comfort were valued over security concerns. Before the attack on Pearl Harbor, the White House was considered just another government office building. It was still possible to relax on its lawn without questions. In Washington Goes to War, David Brinkley set the scene: “Until a few years before, there had been no gates at all, and on summer days government employees had lounged on the White House lawns eating picnic lunches out of paper sacks.”

During World War II, it might have been harder to find a grassy spot for lunch. The District’s landscape was taken over by “tempos,” cheap buildings erected almost overnight and plopped down all over downtown. They lined the Mall and the Reflecting Pool and buttressed the Capitol. Two covered bridges crossed the pool to connect the tempos on its sides. These ghastly buildings, made of concrete and gray boards, were the citizens’ chief complaint. After all, tempos from World War I were still standing.

The ’50s brought building makeovers in the form of bomb shelters. But by the time of the Vietnam War, the mood of the city had changed again, again emphasizing complacent all-access passes.

After Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, on April 4, 1968, local and federal authorities didn’t believe the city would turn to riots. They reasoned that blacks were too well off and that the city was too loaded with military personnel.

The year before, law enforcement officials had developed a plan to combat riots, dubbing it “Operation Cabin Guard.” Authorities waited out the riots for days, even as block after block burned, even as President Lyndon Johnson could see the smoke from the White House. Finally, Johnson called in the National Guard to save downtown and an outmanned police force. The riots ended up costing $15 million in damages and leaving entire swaths of the city destroyed.

When President Richard Nixon took office, limiting protesters’ access to the city became a chief priority. After the May 4, 1970, National Guard shootings at Kent State University, students descended on the city in massive demonstrations. Nixon’s tempos came in the form of buses lining the Mall and hundreds of Army grunts stationed in the Old Executive Office Building.

Protesters had effectively taken over the city. “Kissinger remained steadfast through it all, although the demonstrations after Kent State threatened to make him, as well as the President, a virtual prisoner,” Seymour Hersh wrote of then-National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger in The Price of Power: Kissinger in the Nixon White House. “One night Kissinger slept in Nixon’s bedroom in the bomb shelter to avoid the demonstrators who ringed the White House.”

Leaving the White House could be a chore. H.R. Haldeman, Nixon’s chief of staff, wrote in his diary for Friday, May 8, 1970: “In trying to leave we were jammed in by the troop trucks unloading the Third Army into the EOB. A very strange feeling as the White House and DC batten down for another siege. The buses were being lined up, police all over, etc.” (Nixon did famously brave a late-night trip to the Lincoln Memorial to talk to college students. The students were dumbfounded by the fact that he wanted to talk about football.)

When the tensions over Vietnam eased, the District learned the art of the architectural cover-up. Whereas Hollywood likes to make tragedies into tourist landmarks—the hotel where John Belushi overdosed, the spot where River Phoenix died—this city prefers to paper over them. After then-President Ronald Reagan was shot leaving the Washington Hilton, the hotel altered its entrance: The spot where Reagan was hit was turned into a covered garage.

The Persian Gulf War brought the District its latest innovations—concrete barriers and street closings. The day after the war started, the feds closed off the 100 block of C Street NW and set up Jersey barriers and guard posts around the Capitol.

Throughout the late ’90s, after Ryder trucks had been turned into terrorist icons, large concrete planters became Washington’s greatest landscaping innovation. They sprouted up around FBI headquarters and the State Department. In the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing, Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House was closed. Soon, Jersey barriers encircled the Washington Monument. Last year, renovations at police headquarters included a ring of stone posts leading to the entrance. It looks like a Burger King crown sunk in concrete.

In a city where marble once symbolized refined power, concrete was the new medium of choice. Downtown became an obstacle course of checkpoints, fences, and stubby posts.

Still, you could get around and ignore it all. You could play hide-and-seek at the National Gallery of Art’s Sculpture Garden, see a flick at Screen on the Green on the Washington Monument grounds, take in the city’s twinkling lights from the steps of the Capitol.

But that was before last week’s attacks. Before you could spell the name of Osama bin Laden. Before you saw what it looks like when a jetliner plows into the Pentagon.

Now those Capitol steps are blotched with candle wax—yellow, white, red, blue: the remnants of a memorial vigil.

The sooted gash carving up that wing of the Pentagon looks huge and deadly even from miles away. Milling around the press encampment at a closed Citgo gas station just outside the Pentagon, you can’t take your eyes off it. The so-called citadel of American defense looks anything but alpha male.

In a Pentagon parking lot behind the blast site is a cordoned-off area where photography is forbidden. Hazmat suits are everywhere. Piles of rubble are sifted through ever so slowly. Another parking lot has been taken up by fast-food concessions serving the rescue teams. McDonald’s has taken the time to raise a large Golden Arches sign. It’s like some nightmare version of Breezewood, Pa., down there.

The traffic—which has become a pilgrimage—grinds rush-hour slow. A passenger in the car next to me is furious. Not at the attack. Not at that scar. But at the fact that two guys in an Acura are cranking the Wu-Tang Clan.

“This guy two cars down from us is playing this bitty-bop!” he screams to his female driver. “I want to slap him!” A war may be imminent, but people will still hate hiphop.

At the media tents, there is a sense of unknowing, a sense of urgency. This isn’t the same thing you felt at Monica Beach or in front of Gary Condit’s place. This is a tone of doom and dread, a city remaking itself for another war.

“This is just the beginning, not the end,” explains a somber Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore at an afternoon press conference by Citgo’s Pump No. 6. He has just toured the charred wreckage. The city will change, he says, and will never permit this kind thing to happen again.

Things have already changed. Northwest and downtown now feel like Southeast. Before Tuesday, when the war on drugs was the only war preoccupying Americans, gunfire and police jump-outs were largely that quadrant’s province. Now, everybody feels it. Northwest is getting civil-disturbance units and bomb-sniffing dogs and police who ask a lot of questions. Northwest is experiencing police tape and sirens and middle-of-the-night worries.

Everything is suddenly jumbled and improvised. A friend of my roommate’s scoops up horse manure from a Park Police patrol to fertilize his marijuana plants. Tourists get questioned on the Capitol steps. And a child can be overheard asking her father why an airplane is up in that otherwise silent sky, circling and circling our city. CP