Springtime for Washington

Daisies and rifles are never easy bedfellows, especially when both are just starting to bloom.

It’s an odd time to live in Washington. The city is currently in the early rapture of that meteorological luxury so particular to the South: the slow, bounteous spring that creeps over the land until one day you walk out your door and find yourself enveloped in life-affirming, skin-tingling bright warmth. It’s still a bit on the cold side, and there’s the chance of a relapse, but you can smell traces of spring in the air, and though a tortuous, humid summer will inevitably follow, for the next few months everything will be coming up roses.

I went to college here, and there was always a day—though you could never predict exactly which—when the quads suddenly burst forth with sun dresses, tank tops, Frisbees, and radios. No one went to class. And now, off-campus, I realize the entire city is like that. The cherry blossom festival, softball leagues on the Mall—a thousand versions of the Rites of Spring.

And then there’s the war. People in New York will always have the memory of Sept. 11, and folks in California have the Taepo-Dong II to worry about. But there’s probably no place in the country right now more palpably afraid of attack than Washington. It’s so, so far beyond duct tape. After all, if you go by global opinion, the most hated men in the world all live and work at the very center of this city, a living trove of high-value targets. The city’s terror alert level has just changed from yellow to orange. And it doesn’t help that the after-effects of the ‘Beltway Sniper’ scare of last year have yet to abate; when a car backfires whole sidewalks full of people freeze and look over their shoulders.

Nor does it help that our leaders make grand pronouncements about winning the war on terrorism, only to qualify them with morose statements on the inevitability of more attacks. ‘That lone wolf, that isolated suicide bomber might be the most difficult thing to protect against,’ Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge told Fox News. ‘We’ll never be immune from those kinds of attacks.’

Every day, it seems, is brown-pants day in the District.

Which creates, this spring, an eerie juxtaposition. The cherry blossoms sprouting along the Tidal Basin—a peace offering from the Japanese government after World War II—are only a few hundred feet from the mobile anti-aircraft missile units parked near the Washington Monument. Hundreds of elementary school groups on their annual pilgrimages to the capital march through the streets; meanwhile hundreds of soldiers on heightened alert man roadblocks in front of various federal buildings, checking entering vehicles for bombs. The protest season, a part of the Washington calendar for decades, has taken on an urgency unmatched in history, as tens of thousands of grandmothers, PTA groups, and unions join the usual drum circles and Mumia supporters south of the White House to oppose the impending war.

Spring is the most visceral of seasons, a figurative and literal reemergence of life and emotion from the cold endurance that defines winter (especially this past winter). Spring is an awful time to go to war. And so it shouldn’t be surprising that the warm air has brought with it an impassioned frustration with the contradictions of the moment, the clash of militarism and natural beauty that will define the coming months in Washington.

It’s no coincidence that, as I walked among the thousands of protesters milling around the Washington Monument over the weekend, I sensed a collective note of impatience among the participants that was largely absent from the mega rallies held just a month before. Yes, the war is more imminent, and the movement has so far failed to alter its course. But there was also an element of anger, an undercurrent that asked why, on such a beautiful day, leisure activities had to give way to activism. I don’t wish to disparage those who turned out; I’m sure many did not because they preferred Frisbees to peace flags. Nevertheless, I think the early signs of spring present around the Mall gave the rally an urgency not felt at previous events: In a season less brutal, the forces of brutality seem all the more venal.

True, the missiles and soldiers are here to ensure that the children can continue their pilgrimages, even to ensure that the protesters can continue their marching. And yet, one can’t help but think it is the misjudgments and diplomatic failures of our current administration that have made them necessary. That whatever else, the White House and the Pentagon do not share in the celebration of life that marks Washington’s spring, even, if only in their own minds, they are doing everything they can to protect it. Justified or not, the imminent war is on a timetable of their own making.

And yes, it is true that geopolitics beckons, and that our country must occasionally participate in military conflict to defend its interests or those of the civilized world. And there is never a good or ‘right’ time to do this—the exigencies of global affairs are manmade, and do not follow anything as prosaic as the course of seasons. If war begins, like it or not, we American citizens must deal with the fact; we have a moral obligation to recognize it, think critically, and spend time deciding what we, as thinking people, will do. We cannot sniff flowers and lie in the grass and pretend it doesn’t exist.

Even if, leaving our houses on a warm spring day, we want nothing more than to swim in a creek and soak in the sun; even if we wish, more than anything, that geopolitical concerns simply could be put on hold until June.


TMN Contributing Writer Clay Risen’s first attempt to build a website fell apart after he learned that risen.com had been bought by a hardcore Christian rock band. Clay is a senior staff editor at the New York Times and the author, most recently, of The Bill of the Century: The Epic Battle for the Civil Rights Act. He lives in Brooklyn. More by Clay Risen