| Star dome
There is a city that is inescapable in almost anyone's view of November 2004. The city, Washington DC, holds the white building that personifies world power, and what this power is capable of doing to the rest of us. In April this year, I walked past the White House several times. More than the familiar domed building in the distance, my eye was first caught by the splashes of yellow forsythia neatly pruned and caged in. But once I was outside the gates, the building took over; the entire area had an air of holding its breath. Gates, guards and guns told you that this is an Important Place where you had to be on your best diffident behaviour. A place, like other symbols of ruling might, that needed to awe spectators and diminish them. The official boards only added to this feeling of standing before a sanctum sanctorum. 'VIP Passing' said one. '100% ID check' said another. Tourists, mostly American, stood at the gates, peeping in. A man selling guides to the White House and its neighbourhood did brisk business.
One of the brochures explains the city around you as 'a place created and planned as the seat of government; a young city that powerfully evokes the past; treasure of a nation's heritage' Cameras flashed and clicked every other minute. I watched some of the tourists ready with their cameras, on the alert, as if waiting for something to happen. Or someone important to show up. After all, there are only so many pictures you can take of the grounds and the building in the distance. Earlier I had noticed several American-size squirrels chasing each other round the trees. Now one of them ran up to the gates and settled itself comfortably on its haunches, a large nut in its paws. The squirrel eating its nut without self-consciousness was an ideal photo-op. 'A White House squirrel!' laughed a couple of the tourists, but despite the laughter, digital cameras took aim purposefully. The White House squirrel, acclimatized to its surroundings, gamely presented its best side for posterity.
The White House is, of course, the superpower in the city. But the city is also lined with other buildings, one important and impervious building after the other with various instruments of power within their walls. There is, for example, the granite Greek revival structure that is the oldest 'departmental building' in the city; it still serves as the headquarters for the treasury department. This building, I am told, has the '1864 burglar-proof vault', but public tours of the building have been suspended since 9/11. And here and there are the memorials. Some flaunt their official importance; some are almost hidden away; others are in the nature of graffiti ' posters, souvenir shops attuned to what the people are meant to remember. Together these memorials say a great deal about the city's worldview.
Washington is, as the brochures say, where the nation commemorates the wars the country has fought and 'the men and women who served and gave their lives in them'. As I walked away from the White House, I saw a straight pillar of smooth granite with a gilt angel on top holding the American flag. The plaque read, 'Memorial Association of the first division and patriotic friends to the memory of the dead of the division who gave their lives in the world war that the liberty and the ideals of our country might endure.' Nearby, easy to mistake for a sidewall, was a far more modest memorial to Vietnam veterans. The plaque, less effusive, said, 'To the soldiers of the first infantry division, US army, who made the supreme sacrifice in Vietnam.' In between these two memorials was another even easier to miss. A patch of orderly red tulips and a small plaque raised on the ground made a brief reference to the 'supreme sacrifice in Desert Storm (Iraq and Saudi Arabia) 1991.'
But the living monument to Vietnam veterans in the Constitution Gardens evokes a very different atmosphere. Wreaths and flowers are sold in stalls; schoolchildren line up to buy these and a variety of stickers to 'thank a vet today for your freedom'. I saw two wreaths with stars and stripes at the centre from 'Our Redeemers School' and 'Blackhawk School'. The official Vietnam memorial has a contemporary feel to it after the old-world statues and angels and temples to liberty. Black marble panels stand one after the other to make a wall. The panels are covered with names. A large number of the names are of men ridiculously young: I counted quite a number who 'died with honour for god, country and corps' at age twenty and twenty-one. In addition to flowers, there were all kinds of personal mementoes placed at the feet of the panels. A medal with the card attached to it reading 'To my brother George'; letters to a Roy, beginning 'You may be gone, but we never' There was also the occasional wooden dove painted grey and white. As I read the names on the panels, I overheard an old woman behind me asking the young man with her: 'So are these names of people in Vietnam who died' 'No, Mom,' I heard him reply impatiently. 'These are Americans.'
The 'living' souvenir shops outside the Lincoln Memorial were more directly eloquent. These are the monuments of a nation at war, not merely remembering it. The stars and stripes stickers being sold warned that 'these colours don't run. Flag burners, beware!' The most popular poster being sold said on top, 'Iraqi Most Wanted' and below, faces and names on the appropriate card. Saddam was the ace of spades. One card, a joker listed the Iraqi military ranks; the other joker listed titles in Arabic transcribed in English.
Several cards had a scrawl across the face: 'Gotcha!' One quiet brown poster ' at first I thought it was an official tag, the kind attached to suitcases in airports ' announced 'USA Permit No. 91101. Terrorist Hunting Permit. No Bag Limit ' Tagging Not Required.' Advice from the past had been freshly resurrected to go with the newly renewed hunting permit. There was an informative notice on the marines from a Rear Admiral 'Jay' R. Stark of the US Navy dated November 1995: 'Marines I see as two breeds, Rottweilers or Dobermans, because marines come in two varieties, big and mean, or skinny and mean. They're aggressive on the attack and tenacious on defence. They've got really short hair and they always go for the throat.'
With this advice in mind, it's a little difficult to make the journey back in time and enter the nearby Lincoln Memorial, a pillared Greek temple of sorts with a larger than life statue of Lincoln sitting on a chair. But on either side of the statue is a small sign that warns 'Quiet: Respect please!' Somehow this fits in better with Washington and its monuments today than the carved letters on a sidewall that declare, 'Fourscore and seven years ago our father brought forth on this continent a new nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal'