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17 September 2001

In Georgetown, even the privileged quake

Terror in America

By Morag Preston

Georgetown is a place of precise rituals where dinner parties start at 7.30 and end at 10.30 to ensure the power-players who run the country have their wits about them the next day. You can almost hear the gentle tick-tock as the men in suits head downtown to work as the sun rises over the Potomac and return again at night to the comfort of a neighbourhood so bijoux only Martha Stewart could have dreamt it.

The picturesque, tree-lined neighbourhood that is home to Washington’s elite is a safe haven tucked away in a city with a reputation for crime. Most mornings, Donna Shalala, the former health secretary, walks her dog in the local park; Madeleine Albright, the former secretary of state, tours the cobbled streets in a tracksuit and red baseball cap (tailed by security); and the British ambassador takes on Condoleeza Rice, America’s national security adviser, at tennis.

But after the events of last week, the fragile patina of security that swaddled Georgetown’s power-players has been shattered. Not far from the doorsteps of their ivy-covered mansions, a plane slammed into the side of the Pentagon, shaking the foundations of a district whose inhabitants felt untouchable, until now.

Never noisy, my Georgetown neighbourhood was eerily quiet on Tuesday, aside from the haunting sound of sirens coming from downtown. The cool breeze that blows in after Labor Day was chill, the sun out, and the sky a brilliant blue. Sealed off, in a “State of Emergency”, with phone lines down, Washingtonians who like to think they live at the centre of the world, felt helpless.

Whippet-thin wives in Lycra kept their appointments at the gym. But instead of listening to their trainers, they stood transfixed under the TV sets. Most were mesmerised, others grabbed their mobiles and ran. Those who stayed exercised their tongues, questioning out loud the audacity of an enemy who could blow such a big hole in New York’s cityscape. Some blamed the president for his lack of intervention in the Middle East; others said he had interfered too much.

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The exodus from the city centre began minutes after the Pentagon was hit. For once, Georgetown’s roads were bumper to bumper with cars streaming out of town to the suburbs. The usually empty streets that only mailmen and housewives frequent during the day were dotted with tight-faced workers in suits, their ties hanging loosely, briefcases dragging.

On TVs around town, the same talking heads who had fed all summer on a tiresome diet of sex and intern stories looked shaken. The “city of conversation”, as Henry James dubbed Washington, had something very real to talk about. The stock market, schools and airports were closed – the gritty machinery that operates Washington, DC, had ground to a halt. Even the president, First Lady, and Congress had baled out of town to find safety elsewhere.

Pristine white churches opened their doors to let people sit in silence, their heads bowed in disbelief. Georgetowners use the word “blessed” when they talk about where they live. But nobody felt very blessed on Tuesday.

It is inevitable in a community of A-types with connections in government and Wall Street that somebody knows somebody who was injured or killed. Georgetown woke last week to chaos on its doorstep. Instead of living in The Truman Show, DC locals felt like extras in a bad action movie.