On the morning of Monday, Sept. 10, 2001, I was loitering outside the White House, wondering if the landmark building could ever really be secure. Wednesday would be the seven-year anniversary of the day a man named Frank Corder stole a single-engine plane in Maryland, headed south to Washington, came in low over the White House lawn, and crashed into a wall two stories below the presidential bedroom. Frankly, I was surprised no one had tried again.
Humidity hung over Washington that morning like the interest on our national debt, and the sky was washed in a dull federal gray. The president, barely returned from a monthlong escape to his Crawford ranch, was planning to leave once more, to Florida this time, to see his brother Jeb. He had better reason than just dreary weather to be leaving; the morning papers announced an economy in free fall, rising unemployment, plummeting corporate profits, and Newsweek was fresh on the stands with revived talk of electoral illegitimacy. "Bush won by a single vote, cast in a 5-to-4 ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court," the magazine reported. "One justice had picked the president."
As light rain fell off and on along Pennsylvania Avenue, I spent five hours walking the fence, talking to tourists, observing security. It was, by all accounts, a fairly normal Monday, and I, of course, had no hint of what was coming.
Neither did the many tourists who spent the day flocking to the famous wrought-iron fence. Invariably, they would approach with excitement, squint past the black rails for 10 seconds or so, then scramble for the camera. Most wanted to get the shot, the prized photo showing them standing tall with the celebrated house framed just over their left shoulder. Some stared through the fence a moment or two after completing the photo, as if expecting to see George W. Bush or his cheerful wife hanging around on the porch.
At one point, a man stepped up onto one of the squat concrete barricades placed at the perimeter of the White House to deter truck bombers. He was only trying to get a better look. But a second or two later, a deep voice came out of nowhere: "Sir, get down. Get down from the barricades. Now."
Down the street, a D.C. police officer was talking into a microphone. His range of vision was impressive, but I didn't see how he was going to stop any determined attempt to scale the fence. Perhaps the security measures themselves were part of the tourist package, I thought, a bit of pomp and circumstance to remind us of just how important this White House was.
And maybe we needed that reminder. The White House looked disappointingly small to me, set so far back, surrounded by such mighty neighbors. The Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial were easily more majestic; the Old Executive Office Building next door was noticeably larger, far more ornate; the Capitol was a clearly more imposing symbol of command and muscle. The White House, from certain angles, resembled nothing more than an astonishingly luxurious high school -- quite nicely landscaped, remarkably clean, but basically a squat building with thick pillars and a big front door.
I loitered near the fence longer than most people that morning, formulating my architectural opinions. Eventually I crossed the street to Lafayette Park, chatted with Frank, a retiree in a striped dress shirt and pastel blue shorts. He was feeding the squirrels. "I don't know what it is about the squirrels that makes me like them so much," he giggled, tossing peanuts. "It must be the tails."
Frank was out here nearly every day. "You never know what might happen," he explained. "Just last week a man tried to jump the fence." This occurred not far from where we stood. "Like they're going to let him get to the White House," he laughed. "I saw a picture of him in the paper. They had him tackled, all down on the ground and everything, within seconds."
So perhaps I was wrong about the security. It was apparently more than show.
This became clear when I moved to the E Street side, closest to the Washington Monument. Here, where pedestrians and vehicles enter for White House business, armed officers, bomb-sniffing dogs and automated steel barricades were in place. Impressive measures for a peacetime White House, but of course, they wouldn't stop another someone like Corder, the maniac who flew his Cessna right over the fence in 1994, slamming into a tree near the South Portico steps. President Clinton and his family were not in the residence at the time, but Corder was killed on impact.
Shortly after Corder's flight, former CIA director Richard Helms expressed grave concern. "For years I have thought a terrorist suicide pilot could readily divert his flight from an approach to Washington to blow up the White House," he said. "It has been said that the Secret Service is primed for just such a venture. Perhaps so, but the episode this week hardly gives one much confidence."
At about the time that I was considering all of this -- ignorant, of course, as to just how dismally prophetic Helms' words would almost turn out to be -- a brawny D.C. police officer came along and rapidly cleared the sidewalk. "You'll have to move," he barked, his tone suggesting that we would do best to follow his orders quickly and without question. "You'll have to get across the street."
A young woman with two children was having trouble -- her youngest refused to get back into his stroller. I expected the officer to help, but he didn't. "You have to leave the sidewalk, ma'am," he insisted. "You have to leave now." She grabbed her son by the elbow and yanked him along, panic in her eyes.
It was not clear why we were being moved so abruptly, and in my unfamiliarity with White House protocol, I thought for a moment that something was seriously amiss. I managed to cross E Street to where the 30 or so tourists had regrouped, and saw hands pointing to the White House roof. Sharpshooters had appeared.
Then, almost in a blink, the southeast gate was surrounded by motorcycle police, squad cars, Park Service jeeps. Moments later, the Secret Service vans began to roll, along with two long black limousines, sporting American flags.
In the second limo, through darkened windows, I caught a glimpse of the president himself, smiling in his halfhearted way, waving to us from the back seat. He was slumped down, shorter than I expected, or maybe the seat itself was low in respect to the limousine window. Whatever the case, I was struck that morning, one year ago today, by how small and vulnerable George W. Bush looked as he headed to Florida, just as I was struck earlier by how small the building itself had seemed.
The following morning, Sept. 11, 2001, I woke up in a hotel five blocks from the White House, grabbed the remote by the bed to check the morning news. The president was planning to address some Sarasota schoolchildren. Michael Jordan was rumored to be returning to the NBA.
I left the Wyndham, drove a mile north to pick up my friend Ethelbert Miller, a poet and essayist slated to speak that evening at the college where I teach. We headed north on Georgia Avenue about the time two commercial airliners took off from Boston. We left the District and entered rural Maryland around the moment the first plane slammed into the World Trade Center. A third plane hit the Pentagon as we passed Hagerstown. We were just crossing over into Pennsylvania when the last plane was forced to the ground in Shanksville, only about 30 miles from where we were driving.
But we didn't know any of this.
My car radio was off because Ethelbert and I are both avid followers of world politics, and we were busy talking about the combustible situation in the Middle East. At the time, the whole region was keenly on edge, more unstable than what had become the norm. The number and severity of suicide bombings was beginning to escalate.
Ethelbert had experienced missile attacks in Baghdad some years previously, when he was there as a guest poet during the Iraq-Iran War. He told me just how frightening an experience it was for him. "Americans can't fully understand what it is to live like that," he told me. "Americans are not used to bombs."
We discussed whether the current president's reluctance to become involved in the Mideast peace process was making matters better or worse. Ethelbert thought worse, and was clearly worried what might come next. "What you have to watch for is a change in the profile of the terrorists," Ethelbert predicted that morning, as we drove on, the radio still silent. "If the faces of the terrorists change, that will tell you something. If women become suicide bombers, for instance, or if the extent of the terrorism goes beyond where it is now." He trailed off there, but I knew what he was saying. The White House was playing a dangerous game by staying out of the Israeli-Palestinian fray, and changes in the terrorists' identity or methods would be a signal that matters were unraveling beyond our control.
Little did we know.
Until we stopped for lunch in a small Greek restaurant, and I began to hear muffled snippets of a newscaster's voice on the kitchen radio: "Heightened sense of security," "burning debris," "the president is in the air, heading for an undisclosed location." I asked the waitress: "What the hell is going on?" and she was shocked that we hadn't heard.
The White House, of course, was not hit that day, but it well could have been. It may indeed have been an intended target of the Shanksville plane. Various security officials have suggested as much, though the fact has never been fully confirmed. In any case, the idea is not far-fetched.
And what if the White House had been the target, and what if the brave passengers on Flight 93 had not brought the hijacked jetliner down in a reclaimed strip mine? How much worse could Sept. 11, 2001, have been?
Though I hesitate to suggest that anything could be more painful than the devastation we did witness that nightmare of a Tuesday -- I think, on a symbolic level at least, that Americans could have been far more shaken, even more overwhelmed.
The loss of life and property in lower Manhattan was massive almost beyond comprehension, but New York is a place apart from much of America, and it could be argued that this tragedy was less an attack on one nation than an attack on worldwide financial markets. It was the World Trade Center, not the American Trade Center.
While the Pentagon was badly hit, it is a military target, thus less surprising somehow, and it was clear early on that the geometric structure remained largely intact.
At the White House, though, none of this would have been the case. Had the terrorist pilots reached 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and had they aimed with the precision they showed in their other intentional crashes, the building may very well have been leveled. It is, after all, not so large.
And the significance of the strike would have been unmistakable. The White House is two things: the current seat of power, and a rich repository of our nation's history. Both might have been gone within minutes. It is difficult to imagine another building in our nation the loss of which would mean as much. The structure itself would be rebuilt, of course, but the idea -- they can reach us right at our heart -- would never go away.
How much worse would we feel? Even more uneasy, I imagine, unsure not just of our safety, our security, but perhaps also less certain of the ability of our government to survive this new century. The ground beneath our feet feels less stable, even today. But a hit on the White House, the destruction of that symbolic home, would have knocked us momentarily to our knees. And we might still be fighting to get back up.
I knew none of this on that Monday that I lingered too long near the famous fence, saw the president leave by limousine, worried about some insane copycat of Frank Corder. I knew none of this at all. But I did sense vulnerability at the White House, a heightened fear. And my friend Ethelbert and I knew the situation in the Middle East was leaving us far more open to danger than we wanted to be.
I am thankful, on this one-year anniversary, that the horrific day was not even more dreadful. I am thankful, very thankful, that our house still stands.