The Day the Dam Broke in Washington

May 12, 2005



--------------------------------------------------------------------------------
by Tom Purcell

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

I guess it worked.

I guess the terror-alert system in Washington -- the one that shot to red because two nitwits got lost in their plane -- worked. But the incident was awfully disconcerting.

It reminded me of a James Thurber story, "The Day the Dam Broke," that details the chaos that erupted in Columbus, Ohio in 1913 when everyone thought the dam had burst (it didn't).

Thurber speculated that the scare started when one man, possibly late for a lunch date with his wife, began to run east. When someone else began to run, perhaps a newsboy in high spirits, this may have caused a portly gentleman of affairs to also begin to trot.

Soon, others began to run and the chaos was set in motion. Gradually, the loud mumble crystallized into the words "the dam has broke," causing everyone to flee east. At one point a respected doctor, also in full flight, mistook the sound of a boy on roller skates behind him for the rushing waters.

"It's got us!" he shouted.

For nearly four years now America has been working hard to prevent the next terrorist attack. We've been working just as hard to be prepared when it does come. But the little scrape in Washington the other day didn't fill me with much confidence.

As you know, two bozos flying in a small Cessna were unaware they violated a restricted flying zone. Both Mensa members failed to conclude that the big domed building below -- the one located near that pentagon-shaped building, which isn't far from that other one painted all white -- MIGHT BE THE NATION'S CAPITAL!

They also failed to respond to radio requests to identify themselves, probably waved enthusiastically to the Blackhawk helicopter pilot sent to intercept them, and then clapped with delight when the fighter jets launched the pretty warning flares.

And while both morons were successfully escorted to an airport in Fredrick, MD, there was nothing but orderliness down below, as prominent partisan congressmen were probably knocking over crippled folks and the elderly to get to the nearest shelter.

Despite all the money we have spent on Homeland Security, despite all the strategizing and planning by some of the smartest people on the planet, Senators were reduced to hiding under their desks, while highly regarded economists ran around in circles and dignitaries hugged the legs of large, barking police officers.

At least that is how it appeared from the news footage.

All those well-dressed educated folks -- PhD statisticians who don't know how to tie their own shoes running barefoot, activists who usually yell about their causes suddenly just yelling, college interns fleeing the corridors of power that had once drawn them in -- all were scattering this way and that. There was only one time in our nationís history that interns moved with such intensity, and that was when Clinton was still in office.

Officials were quick to point out that the processes worked, more or less. Federal agencies were alerted and quickly carried out their evacuation strategies. Vice President Cheney and other key folks were rushed off to secure locations. True, nobody told the mayor or other local officials what was happening, but it's not like the world's worst-run city would have any ability to respond even if it knew something was going down.

What troubled me most was that somewhere in the Middle East in some faraway cave, Bin Laden was watching the same footage I was. And while the footage caused me a sense of dread, it surely filled old Binny Boy with delight.

He didn't have to do anything to scare us this round. All he had to do was wait for Bubba and Billy Bob to get lost in their flea of a flying machine, and America would be held in the grip of fear for 45 minutes or more.

In any event, nobody got hurt, and I guess our systems and processes worked. Still, the incident reminds me of the day the dam didn't break in Columbus, Ohio in 1913.

Tom Purcell


Ellie