When the capital is rocking, don’t come knocking

Is it safe to come out now? I have just climbed out from under my steel-reinforced desk to see how Washington withstood the Great Quake of 2011. Having surveyed the wreckage, I’m tempted to crawl right back. It was horrifying. Not the earthquake. That was, for those of you who missed it, much like several ...

Scott Olson/Getty Images
Scott Olson/Getty Images
Scott Olson/Getty Images

Is it safe to come out now?

I have just climbed out from under my steel-reinforced desk to see how Washington withstood the Great Quake of 2011. Having surveyed the wreckage, I'm tempted to crawl right back.

It was horrifying. Not the earthquake. That was, for those of you who missed it, much like several bad Indian meals I have had. A few seconds of rumbling. Momentary concern something messier might happen. And then nothing followed by a vague lingering sense that it could start all over again.

Is it safe to come out now?

I have just climbed out from under my steel-reinforced desk to see how Washington withstood the Great Quake of 2011. Having surveyed the wreckage, I’m tempted to crawl right back.

It was horrifying. Not the earthquake. That was, for those of you who missed it, much like several bad Indian meals I have had. A few seconds of rumbling. Momentary concern something messier might happen. And then nothing followed by a vague lingering sense that it could start all over again.

No, what was horrifying was watching a national capital that has spent the past decade "hardening" its assets against a potential terrorist attack mark the approaching 10th anniversary of 9/11 with hysteria, incompetence, and lunacy.

Following the first signs of the quake, which were akin to having an upstairs neighbor moving around a living room sofa, and a bit of swaying, which was akin to what you might feel after a shot or two of tequila, I slowly got up from my desk to joke with my colleagues about it. Claire, my equally stalwart next-door neighbor, did likewise. But when we strolled down the hall to find our associates we discovered a ghost town. Indeed, within seconds, the entire building had apparently evacuated. Washington has not moved so quickly since the last time Congress declared a recess and the members had to rush to catch the flights to their junkets.

Also within seconds, the Twitterverse was quivering like much of the Eastern seaboard had done only moments before. 140-character survival stories commanded the imagination of America’s Eastern elites. That said, it was also impossible to make a phone call. Cell service effectively stopped. So too did work in Washington as folks milled around in the street congratulating themselves on their courage in the face of a catastrophe of the type imminently called for by the Aztec calendar. Work for many was then canceled. People headed home to recover from their 20-second brushes with oblivion. The problem was they headed home all at once. Gridlock stopped traffic throughout D.C.’s downtown area. And we were all left trapped on side streets of the city glaring at each other and wondering what would have happened had something more significant than a gentle 20-second massage actually occurred?

Speaking of massages, the Washington Monument apparently could barely handle its half a minute or so of being the world’s largest vibrator. Cracks appeared and tourists were today turned away while its structural integrity could be assessed. Cracks also appeared in the National Cathedral and in several of Washington’s schools. Notably, given all of this, cracks had to be appearing in the expensive facade of preparedness that had supposedly been put into place in the wake of attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center.

Californians, who consider a 5.8-magnitude quake barely enough to toss their arugula and goat-cheese salads, scoffed. Haitians and the Japanese no doubt shook their heads. But you have to wonder how aspiring terrorists viewed the whole nonsense. There were probably scores of them in and around D.C. watching, twittering each other and immediately thereafter downgrading their orders for munitions. Who needs bombs when the capital city of the most powerful nation on Earth is already, as my dear Dad would say, "more skittish than a menstruating fawn"?

The city with the highest bullshit tolerance in the world apparently is not so good with real stress. My lunch appointment today, 24 hours after the non-catastrophe, was canceled "because of the earthquake." I’d take it personally if I didn’t have so much evidence that this is a city with the intestinal fortitude of an inch worm … or me after one of those rogue Indian meals.

David Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017. Twitter: @djrothkopf

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