Edge in Washington conversations betrays fear of Iraqi terrorism

January 16, 1991|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- It was just another Tuesday morning in the nation's capital as one office worker stepped into the elevator of his downtown building, humming a tune on his way up to the 11th floor.

"How dare you be so happy," chided a fellow passenger.

Clearly, it was not just another Tuesday morning in Washington. And the fragile mood, along with the throng of protesters who filled the White House sidewalks with chants of "No Blood for Oil" and signs such as "Pray for a Miracle, We Need One," weren't the only clues that war, and possible acts of terrorism aimed at Americans, might be only hours away.

As the midnight deadline for Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait approached yesterday, and war appeared more inevitable by the hour, D.C.-area residents were becoming increasingly aware that the city is a possible target of terrorist activity.

Extra police and security guards surrounded the White House, closing the sidewalk on Pennsylvania Avenue temporarily around noon to inspect a "suspicious package" -- a purple knapsack -- that had been left sitting there.

Walk-in tours at the Pentagon were halted. And security was beefed up at government buildings, where federal employees had to submit their ID passes to guards.

Many Washingtonians, as well as Baltimore-area residents concerned about their proximity to the center of government, are beginning to wonder just how nervous they should be. Is the subway safe? Government office buildings? What about airport security? Trains? Should we avoid the theater, shopping malls, other large congregations of people? Should we cancel our vacation? Move to Nebraska?

"With the impending feeling of war and the mysterious sense of the unknown, there's a lot of pressure on people," said Hannah Tashlick, a Washington secretary.

"I work one block from the White House," said lawyer Barry M. Goldman, a Baltimore native. "Of all the areas, that's probably one of the higher-risk areas. I'm more concerned than I would be if I lived in Roland Park in Baltimore."

Even a few tourists wondered whether Washington was such a good vacation spot these days.

"In the last couple of weeks, I've been worried about coming here," said Rose Marie Kuenzli of Salem, Ore., on a sightseeing trip here with her husband. "I was worried. He wasn't. So I'm

here. But we've been very conscious of things around us."

Dick Butler, a tour director with Washington Historical Tours, said business was down about 20 percent.

Asked whether there is legitimate reason to fear terrorist actions here, FBI spokesman Jim Mull said, "Most of our information suggests possible [terrorist] activity outside the country, at least for now. We really don't have any specific information about any activity in the country.

"That doesn't mean we haven't identified potential terrorist groups here. But we've had no specific indications that anything is planned."

He acknowledged, "There are an awful lot of things in D.C. that are what you'd think of as targets -- monuments, government buildings, government installations. That's the nature of this area.

"People should just be aware and alert and not go into a panic about it. If they see anything unusual or anything that might be threatening, they should contact the local police or FBI."

Even domestic air travel is giving some cause for concern, and airline security has already been tightened at nearby airports.

Last weekend, Mr. Goldman and his wife decided to rethink their travel plans for an upcoming trip within the country. The couple rTC decided not to cancel, but to leave from a "less prominent" airport.

"We were just about to get tickets and decided to leave from an airport we perceive to be less of a target," Mr. Goldman said. "Perhaps even changing airports is ridiculous. Perhaps it's just being superstitious."

Many believe there's no use in getting alarmed or changing their behavior.

"I've traveled a long time, including internationally, and I've accepted a fatalistic attitude about it," said Daniel Gattis, an investment adviser from Wayne, Pa. "There's not much you can do as an individual traveler. So you get on a plane and go. Although you're probably safer riding Greyhound."

But some, like foreign language teacher Olha Ponos, believe you're safer not riding at all. She and other teachers at Hanover Park High School in East Hanover, N.J., have canceled student trips to Europe planned for this spring. "I feel at this point I do not want to have the responsibility," Ms. Ponos said. "Most of the time we land at airports in Frankfurt, Paris or England -- ones that are usually targets."

Travel agents say many clients are waiting to see how the crisis shakes out before planning trips, especially trips out of the country.

"It's in a limbo," said Sally McCann, a Baltimore travel agent. "Everybody's a little paralyzed by this. I'm assuming a lot of people who would normally be thinking about upbeat sorts of things like vacations just aren't thinking about it."

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