05/11/2005 01:48 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Evacuating the Capitol: My Real-Life Tale

Just had to run for my life. Or so I thought. My office is in a building on Capitol Hill, tucked between the Capitol, the Supreme Court, and the Senate office buildings. As I was working away, my assistant Alexa Steinberg and I heard a fighter jet scream right over our office. The windows rattled. I thought of Iraq. At that point, John Johnson, who works in the Episcopal Church's government relations office next door to us, looked out the window and saw people running away from the Capitol. Think Godzilla--but without the screaming. Then the news started reporting that the Capitol Hill police were evacuating the Capitol and the surrounding buildings and telling people to run not walk as far away as they could. We prudently decided to bug out. I grabbed my laptop--of course--and (get this!) a copy of my boss' new book, A Matter of Opinion by Victor Navasky (how's that for a plug?), and ran down the stairwell. I knew everyone else would be fleeing on foot--we went through a similar evacuation about a year ago--so I jumped into my car with Alexa, determined to head out of town as fast as I could. I thought about putting the top down but decided now was not the time for a stylish getaway.

We turned right on to Constitution Avenue, drove one block, and hit a wall of cars trying to go north on Third Street, which was backed up for blocks. But straight ahead the road was clear: absolute daylight. With visions of a radioactive plume chasing us, we sped down Constitution. The police presence evaporated a block beyond the Senate office buildings. We drove through middle- and low-income black neighborhoods, where no one seemed to be in-the-know about the catastrophe at hand. I wondered if I should be shouting at them, "Flee while you still can!" Within minutes, I was a mile or two from the Capitol. I called my wife, ready to give her detailed instructions on what to do with the kids. She didn't answer the phone. (I later learned she had left the house without taking her cell phone.) Then word came over the radio: the all-clear had been sounded at the White House and it would be issued at the Capitol within moments. A small plane had flown into restricted airspace over Washington, DC, and that had triggered the rushed exodus. The aircraft had been intercepted. At this point, my pal Micah Sifry called and noted--half-jokingly--that it was very interesting that this had all occurred the same day that USA Today is reporting that former Homeland Security head Tom Ridge had said that the administration had overstated the terrorism alerts.

On the way back to the office, I realized that the reason we had been able to zip away and avoid traffic was because we had followed the path of least resistance, which happened to lead to black Washington. Those drivers that had tried to squeeze down Third Street were looking for Massachusetts Avenue, a main thoroughfare that leads to downtown and white Washington. So now I have my secret evacuation route all set. Please don't tell anyone.

I was feeling rather secure--or as secure as one could after such an evacuation--when I returned to the office. Then I learned that the emergency coordinator for our floor, Molly Keane (who also works in the Episcopal Church), had pulled the alarm for the building on the way out. It didn't go off. When she called the building's management office, they were rather unexcited about this. Great. Next time we may not have a F-16 screeching by to serve as a warning. And, by the way, the Capitol Hill police did not bother to notify anyone in our building about the evacuation. But at least Fox News Channel already had someone on suggesting the plane should have been shot down.

This is life in Washington, I suppose. I'm going to have consider telecommuting more seriously. The Nation doesn't provide hazard pay.

Speaking of hazard pay, like all other bloggers here, I'm working on Arianna's farm for free. So I don't feel awkward plugging my own blog at and The Nation magazine's site at Please check them out--and my reflection, posted earlier today, on Jesus and Bruce Springsteen.