Terror: Is Washington, DC Safe?



ISIS says they will attack the nation’s capitol but intelligence agencies say, “all quiet” or thereabouts.

Meanwhile, a recent New York Times op-ed tells us that we are no Europe with their porous borders; all is safe, sort of.

They also remind us that so-called “lone wolf” self-radicalized jihadists are a persistent concern here because assault rifles and maximized magazines are a dime a dozen.

Means, motive, opportunity: all present and accounted for.

A Confined Space

Terrorists seem to strongly prefer a confined space for obvious reasons.

The innocent can be easily herded, and are easier to target.

In fact, the last twenty-two US mass shooter events occurred indoors in such circumstances.

More “sophisticated” attacks involving teams of terrorists also target groups who are inside or can be moved there quickly.

Perhaps the best (or worst) example is Beslan, North Ossetia in 2004, where 385 hostages were killed.

The same is true of the Bataclan venue in Paris, where 89 died.

This weekend’s attack at the Planned Parenthood facility in Colorado Springs also follows that pattern.

Lack of “Adequate” Security?

Bataclan, Paris

Bataclan, Paris

It’s unknown whether Paris’s Bataclan theater had security and if so, how much.

We do know that the Stade de France, a large-venue stadium, had “pat-down” security and that that was enough to stop three suicide bombers.

The Parisian Charlie Hebdo offices apparently lacked security when they were attacked on January, 7, 2015.

Not surprisingly, terrorists avoid fighting their way in by choosing a venue where that would not be necessary.

“Soft” targets, they call them.

Deterrent security has to be properly positioned in order to be effective.

So-called “bouncer” security with a stool at the front door is too little, too late.

No Way Out

Many interior spaces in older buildings may have one way in and a half-hearted secondary exit.

I was in a very popular Washington sight-seeing venue recently and it occurred to me that I had never searched for  the emergency exit.

What I discovered was not pretty: the secondary exit was up a set of steps that were partially obstructed at the top by equipment.

It’s not good enough to just “look around and find the exit nearest you.”

You need to find out what is behind that door and plan your rapid departure accordingly.

Find the tertiary exit, or at least try to.

And, as always, when your instinct tells you to leave, do it.

Don’t wait on the crowd.

Often Well Done

The White House is seen through two layers of fence in Washington, Tuesday, Sept. 23, 2014. One fence is the North Lawn perimeter fence and the other is a linked portable fence. An intruder managed to jump the north fence of the White House and escape capture until he was inside the North Portico entrance of the White House. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

For my money, the safest tourist venues in the city may not seem so at first glance.

North and south “outside the fence” White House exteriors, much of the U.S. Capitol and grounds and the Supreme Court all have security (and defense) in depth at least against firearms and packages.

Secret Service Unformed personnel at the White House viewing points are especially vigilant about packages and behavior.

They are likely to spot serious trouble (and react to it) in very short order.

(I continue to applaud their professionalism and restraint when dealing with fence jumpers. It takes a professional to calmly access the situation in real time and to not over react.)

Many other Washington venues require some version of deterrent security, perhaps enough to turn away a would-be attacker.

The Smithsonian Museum System, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM), the Newseum, the Archives and the National Gallery of Art all offer various levels of screening, hopefully based on accurate, timely and professional threat assessments.

For obvious reasons USHMM may have the best security with outside sentries as an initial presence and “airport” style screening on entry and armed officers on post.

The National Cathedral has better security than many “official” sites.

Some Work Clearly Needed

Lincoln Memorial

Lincoln Memorial

The memorials, Lincoln, WWII and Vietnam, especially, are high profile and vulnerable spaces with little or no consistent deterrent security and no apparent real-time package security.

These venues are vulnerable in part because they are not ground level.

At Lincoln, visitors ascend steps to an enclosed chamber and at WWII and Vietnam they are in a below grade setting blocked by walls.

Any venue with barriers to an easy and fast escape should receive additional security attention.

Which makes Ford’s Theater a catastrophe waiting to happen.

Fords: District.com

Fords: District.com

Ford’s offers no deterrent security, no package security and hundreds of visitors are often herded downstairs via a narrow and winding stairwell into a basement where they are held until they then ascend a different stairway into a theater space, all the while navigating unfamiliar territory.

It should make the hair stand on the back of your neck where safety is concerned.

Whose Minding the Store?

Ninety-nine percent of the venues mentioned here are under the direct or substantive control of the Federal government though it seems apparent that they have no over-arching approach to threat assessment or the provision of deterrent security.

That fact argues in favor of an informed and aware visitor.

Do we live in a time when taking security into account is simply a matter of commonsense?

It would seem so, though not excessively.

It pays to pay attention to where you decide to go and when you do so.

Be mindful of what you would do in an emergency and trust your instincts.

Venues with difficult exit options should be especially subject to scrutiny.

Your judgment can be your best (or worst) resource.

See you out there.










  • Victoria Huckenpahler says:

    Thanks for this helpful info., Eric. I plan to stay away from many of these spaces in coming weeks (months? years?) as, having been born in DC, I’ve seen most of them many times. I also plan to take busses in lieu of the Metro, where possible. The latter is a real concern, especially given its very poor management in recent years.

  • Steven Johnston says:

    Thanks, Eric. Let us all continue to visit the Mall (one of the world’s greatest civic spaces) and all the other sites and destinations Washington has to offer. To live in Washington is to live a life in public. That’s the point of being in this—or any other—city. Here we can take a valuable lesson in citizenship from Parisians who were back in cafés and restaurants the day after the IS slaughter. A democratic people, not the police, not the military, are responsible for enacting and thereby defending their liberties. See you out there indeed.

  • Bob Gray says:

    Thank you for calling attention to holes in the security blanket so often assumed to cover our monumental venues. Staying away would be a victory for fear. Awareness, vigilance, prudence, and good judgement are needed, as you say

  • Betty K says:

    Good Advice!

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