Commentary: Historically, D.C. No Stranger to Attacks

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It was a masterful political stroke by President Jefferson Davis and his Congress. After all, Virginia is synonymous with revolutionary patriotism. It is the home of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, George Mason, and Patrick Henry. Thus the confederates characterized the Civil War as the second American Revolution. For them, those in rebellion were the true sons of 1776.

After the Union defeat on July 21, 1861 at the first Battle of Bull Run, which is located only a few miles from Washington in the Virginia countryside, the city could have easily been captured by the confederate victors who decided not to pursue the panic-stricken Union soldiers fleeing in full retreat. To protect itself from invasion, Washington would become the most fortified city in the western world. Sixty-eight forts would eventually surround the city. One of the forts, Fort Stevens, located in Washington, near Silver Spring, Maryland, was attacked by Confederate General Jubal Early on July 12, 1864.

Maryland was a slave state that had not joined the confederacy but was very divided in its loyalties. Lincoln, fearful that she may indeed secede (thereby surrounding Washington with two states in rebellion) executed many drastic (some consider unconstitutional) measures to prevent Maryland from leaving the Union.

Not only was Lincoln actually present at the Battle of Fort Stevens, but it was there where he was nearly killed. Confederate sharpshooters easily recognized the president (from seeing his photograph in newspapers) and fired upon him. Although they miraculously missed him, a soldier, standing only three feet (one meter) away from Lincoln, was shot and killed.

Structural reminders of the fort remain and there is also a commemorative plaque at the site between 13th Street and Georgia Avenue Northwest.

During the 20th century war has continued to define the character of Washington.

As a consequence of America's participation in World War I and World War II, Washington became a world capital. In decisively defeating the Germans and Japanese the United States also destroyed, hopefully forever, any desire on their part to pursue regional domination through invasion and conquest of neighboring countries.

Both expansionist Germany and Japan evolved from social orders that worshipped the cult of the warrior. Neither country respected the American military and, to paraphrase General Eisenhower, entirely underestimated the power of an enraged, focused, and disciplined democracy.

For 13 days in 1962, nearly 40 years ago, Washington stood defiantly in the face of a different kind of terror during the Cuban Missile Crisis. All of those, like myself, who lived in Washington at the time, calmly prepared ourselves for the very real probability that we would be the first target of a nuclear attack against our country.

Washington survived that frightening period and grew into an even stronger capital city as a consequence.

The terrorists who attacked the United States on September 11—along with their sponsors and hosts—are the Ku Klux Klan (U.S. domestic terrorists of an earlier era) of the Middle East. The killing of unarmed, innocent individuals, traveling in airplanes and working in office buildings is no different than bombing to death black children while they attended Sunday school.

The KKK still exists, but mostly as memory. As an organization it is a shadow of its former self and today exists as pure theatre, providing a perverse form of "entertainment" for a pathological audience of hate lovers.

The task ahead in waging war against global terrorism will be long and arduous and will require unrelenting resolve.

America must develop, and forcefully implement, a strategy of assault that will terrify the terrorists into submission.

Sadly, the recent events of September 11 will remain seared in America's national soul forever. Nonetheless, the U.S. will rise to the challenge before it, as it has done so many times in the past, and it will—with the support and aid of its allies—defeat and destroy its enemies and make the world a safer and better place to live.

The "noble eagle" has left his nest, let the prey beware.

Professor Edward C. Smith is a third-generation Washingtonian who teaches at American University. He is a regular contributor to National Geographic News.

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