| Dwight W. Watson’s tractor in the pond near Capitol Hill in Washington DC. (Reuters)
Washington, March 19: It was bizarre. With America’s mighty military machine about to crush Saddam Hussein’s army and take over Iraq, the capital of the world’s most powerful nation in history was being held to ransom today by a lone farmer from North Carolina driving a tractor into a pond at the Mall, a stone’s throw from Capitol Hill.
Dwight W. Watson, the tobacco cultivator from Whitakers, has, in fact, been the lord and master of a big section of one of the most sensitive areas of this city housing key offices and ministries since noon on Monday. Police snipers, FBI agents, the US Park Police and staff of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives have been in position for the third day on the Mall trying to get Watson to come out of his tractor and surrender. He claims he has explosives inside the tractor.
Watson, in deep debt trying to run his 45-acre tobacco farm, is protesting US government policies which are allegedly driving farmers into penury — much like the cotton growers in Andhra Pradesh who are being driven to suicide.
What he has managed to do, however, is to make huge demands on this capital’s law enforcement and security services at a time when domestic security threat level has been heightened to “high risk” or “code orange” on the eve, as it were, of war.
By closing off a big portion of “official” Washington to traffic, disrupting the work of thousands of key government employees and work in their ministries, he has shown how easy it would be for a small but determined terrorist group to bring the most powerful capital in the world to a halt at a time of crisis like war. Traffic through parts of Washington which normally takes 30 minutes to pass took more than three hours this morning.
As part of heightened security threat, the security perimeter of the White House has been extended, barring pedestrians from Pennsylvania Avenue, another street and sidewalks on a third side of the presidential mansion.
Cars approaching airports are now randomly stopped and searched, new restrictions are in force on private planes flying over the national capital area and limitations have been placed on flights over sports stadia, the Walt Disney World and Disneyland theme parks.
Patrols are now intense at ports and nuclear power stations even as health workers here are being vaccinated against small pox in the eventuality of a small pox germ attack.
Many schools in the national capital area cancelled students’ field trips which would require overnight stays in either Washington or New York. High school students doing internships on Capitol Hill were also unable to report for duty.
Elsewhere in the US, Oscar organisers decided to cancel the traditional red carpet reception for celebrities on awards night as many actors and actresses sought the safety of a back entrance instead of public view in front of TV cameras.