WASHINGTON — AS POLITICAL lions drifted back from New Year's vacations, there was an air of unreality in their war talk.
From White House to Pentagon to the Capitol, the Imperial City was obsessed with war monomania. Would Saddam blink? Would there be war in the gulf? When would it start? How long would it last?
But while the president prepared to fight for oil and honor 6,000 miles away, a real war raged on his doorstep. Plenty of firepower and body bags, if anyone cared.
It's the War of the Streets.
Sometimes, not always, it's fought over drugs. Sometimes over basketball shoes or a gold chain or a jacket. Sometimes because a gun-toting youth imagines he's been "dissed."
It adds up to a record 703 homicides in the Washington area in 1990. The city of marble-and-monuments wins the title of Murder Capital USA.
As in any war, real people wind up on cold slabs:
* A young secretary returning home from a federal job, baby in her arms, child by the hand, is accosted by a man asking for money. Rebuffed, he kills her.
* The kid brother of Len Bias, Maryland basketball star whose cocaine death grabbed national attention, angers a stranger in a mall. Bias is killed in a car-to-car fusillade. On a sunny afternoon, a car drives by a street corner spraying 9mm bullets. Five children, ages 6 to 15, are wounded. The shooters are under 16.
"There's total disrespect out there for human life," says D.C. Police Chief William Fulwood.
Not that the War in the Streets ends at the Washington Beltway. There were record murders in 1990 in Philadelphia, New York, Boston, Dallas and 15 other cities. Homicides were up 20 percent in big U.S. cities. The 11,832 murders by gunfire -- equal to the deadliest years of the Vietnam War -- could start off the bloodiest decade in U.S. history.
Why the Wild West carnage? The stereotype of street hoods shooting each other over drug money no longer holds. Police say drug-related murders are down from 70 to 45 percent.
No, there's something more ominous, baffling and pervasive about the 1990s War in the Streets:
Cheap guns, cheap lives.
Cops speak with awe of 13-year-olds going to school armed like Mafia hit men. "In my day, you had a beef, you used your fists," says a D.C. cop. "These kids say, 'I got my nine (9mm), I'll spray you.' They'll pull out a piece, bang away. They'll drive past, shoot up a crowd. Life doesn't mean a damn."
Gun control, thanks to the National Rifle Association's cowering of politicians, seems a fading Utopia. D.C.'s strict firearm laws are mocked by guns flooding from other states. Congress, with no help from NRA lifetime member George Bush, stalled on banning paramilitary assault guns.
Now -- would I make this up? -- the NRA wants to legalize machine guns. Are bazookas next?
What's scariest about the gun-kids is their detached, desensitized attitude toward murder. Numbed by shoot'em-ups on TV -- where sex and nudity is banned, but not violence -- riddling somebody with a .38 becomes as unreal as a scene from "Miami Vice."
Poverty, joblessness and hopelessness play into a gun-kids' culture that cheapens life. It's becoming a wasted generation; 83 percent of D.C. murder victims were black males.
"When I talk to these young people involved with violence, there's no remorse, not the first tear, no sense this is morally wrong," says Fulwood.
So cops make chalk outlines on the sidewalk of the first 1991 bodies. An argument over a cocaine bag or a couple of bucks or a turf squabble? In D.C,. Philly, Boston and a dozen cities, the War of the Streets heads for a new record.
At the White House, Bush flack Marlin Fitzwater shrugged off the homicide epidemic as "very disturbing."
Then Washington returned to its obsession over the Persian Gulf oil battle.
Anybody wonder if we're fighting the wrong war?