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2 years later, terror still driving agenda

WASHINGTON -- It is noon on a crystalline Thursday in Washington. I am sitting at a table on the roof deck of the Hotel Washington, just a block from the White House, which looks wedding-cake pretty just a couple of hundred feet to the right. The Washington Monument, ringed by flags, glows before us. There is a pile of papers in front of me, but otherwise it is a quiet lunch, a chance to appreciate the unique view.

Between the roof deck and the White House is the Treasury Department, another huge classical edifice undergoing some kind of construction. Steam billows from a vent beside it. Or is it smoke?

Leaning over the rail, I can hear the wind whistling amid the clanking of machinery. A quick glance to the left, toward the park in back of the White House, and all seems peaceful. A few tourists walk slowly past the fence surrounding the lawn. Farther down, toward the monument, four clusters of people are sunning themselves on the green grass.

But from somewhere down there comes the fwa-fwa-fwa of a siren, and a security guard marches quickly, purposefully, along the path beside the White House. His eyes are darting and his head is twisting. All at once he is both alert and confused.

At this moment I remember the date -- Sept. 11, 2003 -- and that we are in the midst of the number one terrorist target, the pin in Osama bin Laden's map of the world.

In the perfect skies above -- wasn't it exactly like this two years ago? -- a jet banks to the left, letting the sun shine on its belly like a cat on a summer afternoon. For a moment it veers back toward the right, straightening out, and its direction seems uncertain. It stands poised in the air only 10, maybe 20, seconds from the White House.

Somewhere below, there is the wailing of a car alarm, mixing with the screech of a car needing a brake job. The wind carries the echos of a cacophony of voices, like waves crashing on a distant shore. Is there a protest going on? A disturbance somewhere? And what about all those sharpshooters in their dark uniforms on the roof of the White House? Are they checking something out?

Maybe. Probably. These days, almost certainly.

An Arab woman walks alongside the White House gates. She is wearing flowing robes, which can conceal a lot. But this woman is strolling with a man and a child. The eyes of a sharpshooter alight on her for a second, as she and her family head toward Lafayette Park.

The park, directly in front of the White House, is dotted this afternoon with middle-aged men in their shirtsleeves sitting alone on benches, apparently manning listening posts while feeding the pigeons. They look to be John Ashcroft's men -- or someone else's.

Here, in the heart of official US power, the fears of a nation get converted into kinetic energy. This is the energy that is driving American politics now. It is this energy that has fueled a preventive war, placed new restrictions on civil liberties, justified the use of military tribunals for suspected terrorists.

It is not that these are the only rational responses -- it is that these are the ones that have been put forward, that have sought to address the tension in the air.

So far, the Democratic presidential candidates have seesawed between backing President Bush on certain initiatives and opposing him strongly on others. Lately, the forcefulness of their opposition to certain of his initiatives has increased, giving them more of an appearance of leadership.

But right now, it is Bush, and Bush alone, who is seeking to channel the energy created by fears of terrorism. These currents are strong enough to disturb the quietest of Thursdays in the most protected place in the country.

They add up to a real force, and one the Democrats ignore at their peril.

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