COLUMN EIGHTY-EIGHT, APRIL 1, 2003 (Copyright 2003 The Blacklisted Journalist)


Subject: Chaos by Lone Man Bewilders Capital
Date: Thur, 20 Mar 2003 15:12:59 -0800
From: "venire"

March 20, 2003

Chaos by Lone Man Bewilders Capital


WASHINGTON, March 19 " A tobacco farmer who drove a tractor rig into a decorative pond on the National Mall and threatened to blow himself up surrendered to the authorities today after largely paralyzing the center of the capital for more than two days.

The farmer, Dwight W. Watson, 50, climbed out of the cab of his John Deere tractor and walked backward into police custody shortly after noon. Mr. Watson told reporters that he was protesting reductions in federal tobacco subsidies, which he said had forced him to give up his North Carolina farm.

Federal authorities were quick to praise the strategy of the United States Park Police to wait out Mr. Watson, who said that he had ammonium nitrate-based explosives and that he would get his message out "or die trying."

But throughout the 48-hour standoff many residents around Washington and visitors voiced disbelief that a single man in a piece of farm equipment with what turned out to be a dummy hand grenade had created such chaos in a city focused on going to war.

"For a short time, he managed to tie up the center of the free world," said Ralph Tobias, peering beyond the yellow police tape that had prevented his family from walking to the Vietnam and Lincoln memorials.

For those charged with protecting citizens in the case of a terrorist attack, the response to the protest was troubling. Carol Schwartz, a member of the District of Columbia's City Council who is active in emergency preparedness planning, said the reaction of the park police, who control permits for protests in the park across the street from the White House, was too timid and did not bode well in case of a terrorist attack.

"This relatively minor incident does not give me confidence in any possible major event," Ms. Schwartz said. "I certainly think it could have been done in a safe fashion, better and sooner, without causing chaos in the city."

But Teresa C. Chambers, chief of the park police, said her department should be commended for negotiating privately with Mr.Watson by cellphone and avoiding a loss of life. She said her officers had been ordered to be quiet about their efforts because Mr. Watson was able to monitor radio and television.

"It must have looked from the outside that we didn't know what the next step should be," she said. But in time, she noted, the park police officers persuaded a distraught man to surrender. "He really just wanted to be heard," she said.

Still, the police's decision to shut down an eight-block area around the pond, including a part of Constitution Avenue, a major thoroughfare, frustrated and enraged commuters who must contend with rush hour congestion on the best days. Three federal buildings, including the Federal Reserve, were closed on Monday and Tuesday.

Traffic experts said that a series of road closings and detours at the same time conspired to block five of the major east-west roads in the heart of Washington. The streets around the White House, including Pennsylvania Avenue, were closed for security, while the streets around the city's new convention center were closed for construction.

"From a traffic standpoint, it was a perfect storm," said Dan Tangherlini, the district's transportation chief. More than 700,000 daily commuters, many of whom are funneled through a handful of bridges across the Potomac, had to find new routes.

Jack Evans, another City Council member, said the traffic problems caused by the closing of Constitution Avenue demonstrated that a large-scale evacuation from Washington would be futile.

"In case of a terrorist attack, we would not be able to evacuate," Mr. Evans said.

Other aspects of the handling of Mr. Watson's protest raised questions.

Daniel Kaniewski, who leads preparedness efforts at the George Washington University Medical Center nearby, fretted that as scores of federal and local authorities stood vigil at the pond they left other potential targets exposed.

"This could have been a diversionary incident," Mr. Kaniewski said. "One of the purposes of terrorism is to divert resources from other sites. By tying up all of those first responders and federal resources it shows what a strain a seemingly small event can have on the system."

Mr. Kaniewski, who had to leave his car behind and take the subway to work, said officials should study their reaction to Mr. Watson's protest.

"It should be a sobering experience," he said. "Unfortunately, the times we learn these lessons is when it costs us the most."

But Ms. Chambers said her agency was able to deal with several incidents at once. The park police, she said, was were called on to fortify security at the Statue of Liberty and the Golden Gate Bridge on Monday and arrested 29 antiwar protesters near the White House today.

In a city where different agencies hold jurisdiction over a building, the street in front of it and a park beyond, Ms. Chambers said her department had worked smoothly with the local police and other federal law enforcement agencies, including the F.B.I. and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

Tony Bullock, spokesman for Mayor Anthony Williams, said federal officials handled the incident appropriately.

"The goal was, as it should have been, to do our best to see that nobody died," he said.

                              Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company  ##



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