Best Kept at Arm's Length

by James Oliphant

27 September 2004

When you live in the target zone of terrorists, the "distant future" is simply the present plus five minutes. One lesson of 9/11 was that, ultimately, real power comes with the ability to terrify. In that context, the concept of powerlessness felt by this disenfranchised population takes on fresh meaning. Staying here is one step toward manifesting the kind of strength that, as a DC resident, we aren’t normally allowed to have: a sliver of dignity in a humbled place.
Security at the Capitol
Photo by
John Cochran  

Washington, DC is criticized by many, dismissed by some, downright detested by a few and beloved by fewer. The overriding vibe its residents, both permanent and temporary, hold toward DC, however, is that of neutrality, of a dispassionate disengagement. It’s a place that is more readily defined by others, both by those outside the Beltway, the late night comedy hosts and crank conservative talk show callers, and those inside, who are just passing through for a few years until the administration turns over, again.

In DC, we pay taxes, work, and play, just like the citizens of every other town in the United States, but what we don’t have, as Washingtonians, is much say in directing ourselves. In Washington, the local government, albeit elected, doesn’t have much power. All major decisions must be approved by the US Congress. Because we have an impotent local government, no representative in Congress, and thus, no freedom to set our own terms of existence, we’re inherently anonymous. The residents of Washington are shapeless and, in some observers’ minds who see DC as largely a welfare state, shiftless. The irony of the so-called Capital of the Free World being America’s most disenfranchised sector isn’t lost on the residents of the federal District of Columbia. But few outside care or comprehend our plight. Despite our modestly spirited “Home Rule” bumper stickers and “Taxation without Representation” license plates, few outside of DC and even fewer in the ruling Congress pay attention. And those who can hear are not listening. We have as much chance as becoming the 51st state as Cleveland.

When things go wrong for the people of DC, as they frequently do in the District — when lead is found in the drinking water, children’s medical needs go untreated, and schools fail to educate — the official response is always the same: a bevy of fingerpointing between the patchwork quilt of federal and quasifederal agencies that half-heartedly attempt to service the citizenry. Local politicians, such as they are (there is a mayor, Anthony Williams, and a city council which seems largely preoccupied with crosswalks and parking) can blame inadequate funding from the feds. Congress, on the other hand, can attack DC as an ever-widening sinkhole for tax dollars that never seems to get patched.

The outcome to a lack of community investment and disinterest in problem solving, then, leaves residents feeling apathetic toward their weakling representatives. There is money, here, for sure. But many of the people who live here and have disposable incomes are young and on-the-move. They’re the lawyers and the Democratic National Committee operatives and federal workers who are sampling the “flavor” of city life before moving to the surrounding suburbs of Maryland and Virginia. When it comes time in one’s life to invest in property, when there are children to bear and houses to buy, many of these people ship out: the overwhelming majority of high-level federal government officials don’t live in the city. When young professionals do decide to remain in the District, their wealth, almost disproportionate in a city where a solid one-fifth of the population lives below the poverty line, drives real estate prices in gentrifying neighborhoods through the roof. The middle class, which largely is the engine of political life in most cities, barely exists in this town.

But the ambivalence felt by those who live in DC isn’t solely due to a lack of personal political power. It runs at the root of the professional life here, as well. Those who don’t live in the District often expect this place to resemble its media image: a hotbed of partisan wrangling. It doesn’t, except on the surface. DC is about business, not ideology. You want ideology, go to grad school. Gay marriage amendments may get all the headlines, but lost in amidst the shouting is the Medicare bill that rewards the pharmaceutical industry or the transportation bill that allows congressmen to send millions of dollars to their home districts. DC is about the paid advocate, the bipartisan lunch, the seamless transit between high-level government positions and high-stakes lobbying. The central industry here goes by an alternate name — politics — but the corporate playbook stays the same. Marble monuments stand grandly in the background, providing a patina of legitimacy to the deals that are done in this town. Nor are things much different with the so-called issue groups, which rally thousands to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Most of those marchers come in from out of town, ready for their photo-op, while DC residents look for reasons to leave town for the weekend.

This place is then, in a sense, no different than filmland’s Casablanca; a city of exiles. Washington, DC is a town occupied by people from someplace else, doing their time before they leave again, with those born and raised here largely kept on the sidelines. Until the people from somewhere else leave, they’ll follow DC’s own, unique, internal set of rules. The rich play their game above the fray, unimpeded by either the neutered city government or its voiceless, impoverished majority.

While they’re here the young and ambitious, whose own professional careers revolve around this axis of politics, power and money, do just what those exiles in Casablancadid: have a grand time in the streetside cafés and cozy restaurants of Dupont Circle, U Street, and Adams Morgan, drinking alongside the Democrats and Republicans while they sing their marching songs to each other. All the while, the rest of us wait for the other shoe to drop, for this moment of calm to pass, as if those Casablanca Nazis will be pounding on our door in the middle of the night. This too, is part of the ambivalence, this slight, unspoken feeling of dread felt day in and day out, as we commute to our jobs, shop for our food, play with our children.

This town is a terrorist target. Here, the distant future is the present plus five minutes. After that, well, the world could be changed entirely. That was the primary lesson of September 11, at least for those of us in DC. Our existence can be altered in an eye blink. This is a living fear probably long obvious to bus passengers in Israel, Palestinians, making their way home from work, and merchants in Chechnya. This everyday fear is now shared with people in what seemed to be distant lands by Metro riders in DC who nervously scan the subway platform at Gallery Place for abandoned packages. Every holiday or event is occasion for a security assessment. Should we go to the Mall for the fireworks? Attend the World War II Memorial dedication? For every such occasion, one must pack one’s resolve and keep exit strategies in mind. That tension has become part of the normal push-and-pull of life here, but it is made worse by the cynicism that pervades. Is there a legitimate threat to the World Bank or is the Bush administration just trying to slow John Kerry’s momentum? Are we, the citizens of the District, simply being used, toyed with yet again?

But in a perverse way, even exiles can come to miss a climate of almost incessant fear. I did. A year ago, feeling shell-shocked from 9/11 and its fallout, my wife and I left DC for the American West. We moved to a small town in southern Colorado, a place that felt sequestered from the stresses of global conflict. Ironically, on one misty fall morning, traveling down a two-lane county road, our truck smashed headlong into a leaping buck. The front end of the car was destroyed, but we were unhurt. In a smaller vehicle, we would have been crushed. We had moved 2,000 miles to flee terrorism and brushed up against death more urgently and intimately than we ever thought we would in such a peaceful, remote place. The idea of escape from death, in any form, is a myth.

Even before the accident with the deer, I was missing Washington, missing the hum of the city, the way it spills into the world, especially last spring when the US invaded Iraq, when I had friends going off to fight and others leaving to chronicle the war. In DC, the papers were thick with talk of retaliation. There were concerns about chemical and biological attacks and advisories to cover windows with plastic. I thought of my friends in town, still driving and taking the train to work. Still out there, exposed. And, we were far away. It felt false. Worse, it felt cowardly to be so safe.

This spring, we returned to DC, and have happily taken our place among the dispossessed. It may be a sure sign of masochism, or perhaps, sociopathy. But being a Washingtonian means sharing the grief, the fear, the maddening inconvenience and political powerlessness of living here, but somehow in the midst of it, warming to it all the same. There can be magnetism to this bus station style of existence. Friendships can last 15 minutes here, but it’s a good 15 minutes.

There is something to be said for existing in the moment, feeling rootless and uninvested, and leaving the future to others. Living this way helps in letting go of fear. One lesson of 9/11 was that, ultimately, real power comes with the ability to terrify. In that context, the concept of powerlessness takes on fresh meaning. Staying here perhaps is one step toward manifesting the kind of strength that, as a DC resident, we aren’t normally allowed to have, a sliver of dignity in a humbled place.

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