Before World War II, on the nice spring and summer days, the people of Washington would take their picnics and lunch on the lawn at the White House.
The fences that now surround the most powerful symbol in the world’s most powerful country appeared much later.
Today, throughout the city, the stars and stripes hang from buildings, and balconies and flagpoles. They are more than normal because this is a country still soaking in the news that Osama bin Laden is dead. Celebrating would be too strong a word. They did in the immediate aftermath but most people recognise that the operation in Abbottabad is not the end of things.
It dominates the newspapers and the Sunday talk shows. What it means for the so-called ‘War on Terror’, the campaign in Afghanistan, for the President and the country.
I first came to Washington DC, 20 years ago this very weekend.
I enjoyed its wide boulevards, its easy charm and the history-soaked streets. But this is a very different city from that excursion in 1991.
Washington’s landscape didn’t change in the way New York’s did after the attacks on 9/11. There are no missing skyscrapers here. The Pentagon, just across the river in Virginia, has been rebuilt. The plane which many people believe was headed to the White House crashed in another state, brought down by the courage of the passengers. But the changes here are smaller, less dramatic but no less obvious.
Many buildings which operated an open door policy now have security on reception and picture ID is needed to gain access. Parts of the city which are open now sit behind large barriers, more often than not guarded by a police car. The monuments which were easily accessible are now not.
Speaking to a friend who has lived here for nearly thirty years, she tells me almost every organisation she knows, schools, church groups, businesses, have contingency plans in case the day comes when transport systems are closed, phone service is restricted and the city is under attack once more.
Washington DC is a prime target. It is the capital of course, the seat of power. But those who wish to confront the US are interested in propaganda victories, of injuries to the American psyche, in symbols. And this is a city full of symbols. So every museum, every monument, every ball game, every gathering on the historic Mall is a target.
Despite all of that, I walked along the Mall on Sunday the famous reflecting pool is being torn up and refurbished, and made my way to the Lincoln Memorial. And it was packed.
At 10.30 on a Sunday morning. There were buses nearby from New York and Boston and Carolina. There were tourists from China and Ireland and Mexico. I took a metro ride (Washington’s underground) to one of the local shopping malls. It was busy with shoppers heading to a place so busy it was almost hard to believe this is a country with serious financial problems.
People here know that they are again in the front line. Al-Qaeda wants revenge, and America is on alert.
Osama bin Laden changed this place with the attacks we are told he planned and financed ten years ago.
But cities change, and grow and adapt and this one has too.
It’s a city that perhaps watches, waits and worries more than others – but it is not a city in fear, even if the picnics on the White House lawn stopped a long time ago.