Suspicious packages in D.C., unpackaged

The object in question had all the hallmarks of a classic Washington suspicious package.

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Sometimes reported, often ignored: suspicious packages such as this one at 14th and Q streets NW last year. (Photo: TBD Staff)

Long story short

For Washingtonians, suspicious packages are an inconvenience. For law enforcement, they're non-stop work.

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A Metro employee spotted it inside the Pentagon Metro station on the morning of Dec. 15. Metro workers are trained to look for anything out of the ordinary in our post-9/11 world. In this case, someone had placed the object in a likely place for a bomb: a Metro trash can. The agency is so concerned with bombs being placed there that it installed stocky, explosive-resistant trash receptacles in its stations years ago.

Another red flag was the timing: a busy Wednesday morning before the holidays, around 7:15 a.m. -- just at the start of rush hour so as to maximize casualties. And then there was the more general location: the Pentagon, already the site of a devastating terrorist attack, an ideal target both logistically and symbolically.

Perhaps most alarming of all, the object appeared to be electrical. It was blinking. The station was quickly shut down, trains were diverted, and the Pentagon explosives team was called in. They were unable to perform an X-ray because of the lead-lining of the bomb-proof can, so an agent suited up in protective gear and personally removed the item. After a roughly hour-and-a-half shutdown, it was revealed to be a battery-operated Christmas ornament. Pentagon officials gave the all-clear.

The Pentagon suspicious package had played out like most others around here. For one thing, it roped in more than one agency. The Metro worker informed Pentagon Police of the object; Pentagon officials in turn asked Metro to shut down its station, and the agency obliged. In another common theme, the incident likely inconvenienced hundreds if not thousands of area workers, as trains were forced to turn around. Passengers who were unable to board at Pentagon wound up waiting for buses in frigid temperatures.

And, as with most similar closures, the object in question turned out to be completely harmless. In this case, comically so. The ornament story was picked up by news outlets around the country as a sign of our hair-trigger response to anything suspicious in the public square.

The suspicious package is a fact of life in modern Washington. Buildings get shut down, blocks cordoned off, Metro stations closed -- all for what usually turns out to be nothing. Forgotten luggage. Toolboxes. Poorly packaged mail. Dirty gym clothes. Random pieces of piping. Items belonging to the homeless and stuffed in newsboxes. In most cases we never find out what they were -- only that they’ve been cleared.

Many who work downtown tend to view these shutdowns as an inconvenience manufactured by hypersensitive law-enforcement and anti-terrorism agencies. But in reality, the closures are self-imposed by us, the citizenry. The vast majority of suspicious-package incidents originate not with cops or government employees working their beats, as in the Pentagon case, but with regular folks dialing 911 when they think they’ve spotted something strange. Often they haven’t. According to a Metro official, around three-quarters of that agency’s investigations start with a tip from the public. And what agency in this day could do anything but run it down?

If they seem like a hassle to commuters and federal workers, imagine having to chase after hundreds or even thousands of them a year. There are entire teams in Washington who spend day after day scrambling to debunk what are mostly our own anxieties. After all, who wants to be the guy -- or the agency -- that ignored what turned out to be the real bomb?

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