Wear Your Mask
Half of Washington, it seems, is heading to Boston this weekend. Politicos preparing their party. Media folks punching in their colleagues' cell numbers, preparing for their parties. Jeans for the dirty work, dresses for the receptions -- and gas masks.
Yesterday, along with checking computer networks and setting itineraries, Knight-Ridder convention-coverers took a full day for security training, learning to watch for terrorists, crouch for safety during civil disturbances, stop-drop-roll and clear air passageways for the wounded. The training came courtesy of Centurion Risk Assessment Services, an outfit of former British special forces officers that does a lot of media boot camps for reporters heading out to cover Iraq, Israel and other hot spots.
The daylong series of seminars (which included free bagels and apple juice, making attendance a must) at times had a theater-of-the-absurd, Dr. Strangelovian quality at times. The hour spent on civil disturbances -- out-of-control protests circa 1968 Chicago -- was near-obsessively focused on the disturbances the Centurion folks knew most, northern Ireland. I came out of the seminar utterly versed in the tactics of Orangemen and Irish Republican Army hooligans -- should they arrive in Boston (and if they arrive in any U.S. city, it would be that one), I'll be prepared for their petrol bombs and ruffian conduct. The two hours of first aid training also bred frustration -- other than some really gnarly photos of people with bolts impaled through their hands and stuff, I doubt that I'm really going to remember the hurried instruction on the "recovery position" and the "ABC" method of checking a victim. (I know it stands for something -- airway/breathing/circulation, maybe.)
Reception to the presentation was -- no surprise here, given that the audience was all-journalist -- skeptical, and maybe a bit fatigued. This is the battle-hardened D.C. press corps. Many of them saw 9/11 first-hand, as I did. Many of us also remember the leadup to the Iraq war, when government officials put anti-aircraft batteries outside the Capitol (was the Iraqi air force about to bomb us?) and told everyone to buy plastic sheeting to create "safe rooms" in case of chemical or biological attack.
None of it happened. And, as exhaustive congressional investigations have shown, none of it could have. The weapons of mass destruction weren't there. The government was wrong. Or worse, maybe it lied to us. And now here we are, in a conference room training for Boston, and some British guy is telling us that the first thing we do when we reach our hotels is examine the exits in case the attack comes on our watch, and if we don't like the exits, we should leave? Sorry dude, but if the manager at the Courtyard by Marriott Boston Revere tells me to love it or leave it, I ain't ploppin' down $250 a night for a different hotel in sold-out Boston because the emergency staircase is too narrow. I've been burned before by these terror forecasts, and I ain't wearing a hazmat suit because John Ashcroft says it might rain.
Then The Voice speaks, quietly. The little voice in the back of my head that says hey -- this stuff really does happen. Just ask people in Bali, or Madrid. Just ask the folks I ride the metro line with every day, the ones who lost relatives at the Pentagon. Nobody who jumped from the 106th floor of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001 had that on their to-do lists when they got up that morning, but it happened, and it happened in part because we didn't take warnings seriously enough. Throw out the politics, and the fact remains: There are people out there who want to cause harm. And though some question the stark language, they want to do it because, when you boil it down, they hate America.
And they don't care that you're a journalist, or that the intelligence was wrong, or that the 2004 presidential race is hinging on people deciding who-handles-what-best. And you think of that, and you listen to the Centurion guys, and you write down what to put in that first aid kit, and you think that yes, this is faintly surreal and yes, surreal things do happen, and yes, without being an alarmist, I'm gonna be prepared.
So off we go to Boston. The threat isn't going to slow anyone down, and it's not going to scare anyone off, and it shouldn't. In my case, I simply can't afford it. I've got the 9/11 report to cover today (stay tuned), and I've got to get everything lined up before I head north Saturday. Check off that to-do list. Make sure computer works. Make contact with the "Salute to Agriculture" folks. Make sure I've got the right cell-phones for the Kansas delegation. See if I can reschedule the physical therapy appointment, because I got up at 5 this morning and I don't have a break until 9 tonight.
And I'm not complaining. This is the convention. This is an uninterrupted American tradition. This is something worth fighting for. I've got a new suit, a couple pairs of jeans, and a gas mask. Let's roll.