Tod Lindberg

When things go “boom” in the night: what was Homeland Security thinking?

Posted by Tod Lindberg on October 4, 2005

The Washington Times

The in-laws were in town, in transit from New Jersey to Florida for the season, and we were bustling in our Cleveland Park kitchen Saturday night when we heard the basso rumble of explosions in the distance. “What’s that?” somebody asked. The levity that had suffused the room dissipated, leaving only still air.

“Sounds like fireworks,” I said. So it did. Well, either that or bombs going off.

The case for the preliminary conclusion “fireworks” seemed to me to go something like this: First, there was a pattern to the rumbling (a point reinforced a few minutes later by a second fusillade). Second, although I am expert in neither ordinance, bombmaking nor sapping, I did once read George Plimpton’s excellent book on fireworks, and these explosions sounded like air bursts, which would make little sense in the context of a terrorist attack. Finally, as unforeseen events go, one still seems more likely to be taken by surprise by a fireworks display, thankfully, than by a terror bombing.

The case for the preliminary conclusion “bombing” seemed to reduce to: Why would fireworks be going off on the first of October? That was still a good question.

The children, bless their addling brains, had the television on, so one could keep one’s cool and wait for the “we interrupt this program …” announcement, or the absence thereof, without the conspicuous display of turning off Carlos Santana in favor of WTOP news. On the other hand, the television seemed to be playing some cable entertainment channel that probably wouldn’t or couldn’t interrupt programming for the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. I stepped out on the back porch for a second to have a listen. For sirens.

I was reminded of sitting in an outdoor cafe in Jerusalem with an Israeli friend as the Al-Aqsa intifada seemed to be winding down (it was). An ambulance came by, sirens blaring. Nobody paid it much mind. My friend explained that it’s only when an ambulance going by is followed by another ambulance and another that people begin to fret seriously.

Any sound of sirens to the south, the direction of the booms? What do you know, sounds like sirens from the south. Huh. I came back in and we sat down for dinner. We eat late. By then, everyone was is a convivial mood again.

Well, the nation’s capital was not, after all, on fire. It seems, rather, that the Kennedy Center was kicking off its month-long Festival of China with a special fireworks show by artist and pyrotechnics guru Cai Guo-Qiang, whose “explosion projects” have won acclaim from Shanghai to Edinburgh.

I guess I didn’t get the press release. Neither, apparently, did the hundreds of worried people who overwhelmed the emergency lines (you know, 911) with calls in the hour or so following the explosions. There were also press reports of numerous panicky people ducking for cover as the explosions began to rumble through a perfect fall Saturday night.

Rest assured, our first responders did indeed know what was going on down at the Kennedy Center. Still, in response to the deluge of calls about the noise and flashes and smoke, they decided to dispatch fire trucks to check out what was happening. So I was not hearing things on the porch: Those really were sirens in the distance, set out in response to what went boom – even though what went boom was the fireworks at the Kennedy Center, as scheduled. Can’t be too careful: Maybe diabolically clever terrorists were seeking to use the fireworks as cover for their bombing, delaying the response to their mayhem and claiming additional lives.

So, are we still a little jumpy here in the nation’s capital? Maybe we are. On the other hand, this was not exactly a great moment in the history of homeland security.

Perhaps, just perhaps, if you are going to set off a rumble of explosions in the otherwise peaceful night air of the capital of a nation that is waging a “global war on terror,” you ought to let people know about it in advance. And no, I don’t mean just by announcing it like you would that tickets are going on sale for “Wicked.” This is hardly the fault of the Kennedy Center alone. Somewhere in homeland securityville, somebody surely got the word that the Kennedy Center was staging an “explosion event.” Was it simply unimaginable that people would be confused about why something was blowing up of a random fall night? Wouldn’t it contribute to people’s sense of homeland security to try to dispel the confusion in advance? And is it a sensible response to panicked calls about an event for which there is a perfectly innocuous explanation to send the fire trucks out with sirens blazing? Yeah, I figured it was probably fireworks. I guess that was also because it was entirely plausible that our bone-headed authorities would know all about the upcoming booms in the night and not get the word out.

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