WASHINGTON — THE American flag atop the United States Capitol snaps to horizontal attention in the stiff breeze. The only sound in this normally clamorous plaza is the quiet conversation of two vigilant policemen patrolling now-empty grounds. It is nearly three o'clock on a surprisingly balmy January morning. Initial reaction has worn off to the bombing of Iraq that began eight hours earlier, and the rest of America's capital city is similarly quiet, save for the last echoes of an antiwar protest in Lafayette Park, across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House. Earlier in the evening the demonstration had been strident, a 20-year throwback to the days of anti-Vietnam War protests.
Even members of Congress and reporters have gone home: Both the Senate chamber and the reporters' press gallery are utterly empty.
In these predawn hours - indeed, since nightfall - this has been a city of heightened security and almost no public presence except for the one antiwar protest.
Police and other security officials seem to be everywhere in the city this day, in security tighter than this reporter has seen over the past 20 years. In pairs they check the outside of the venerable Russell Senate Office Building and the Capitol itself with flashlights, evidently to make certain no one has left a suspicious package against foundations.
Police cars flank the District of Columbia government building a mile away. A lone patrolman stands quietly outside the gleaming B'nai Brith building.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has dispatched nearly a dozen grim-faced agents to patrol the sidewalk in front of the Iraqi Embassy, a squat yellow-brick building a brisk 15-minute walk from the White House. Across the street four city policemen simultaneously eye the FBI agents and lay waste to two boxes of Domino's pizza, identifying the head of the FBI detail by waving a slice of mushroom pizza in his direction.
The front yard of the vice-presidential home of Dan and Marilyn Quayle is also visibly protected: Not only by fence but by floodlight, to discourage intrusions. No one is in evidence outside the fence anyway.
Half a mile away the gothic National Cathedral of the Episcopal Church stands dark and locked. Two short days earlier it had overflowed in a moving ceremony calling for a prayerful solution to the Gulf crisis. Nearly 4,000 worshipers walked from the church to Lafayette Park, across from the White House.
That night almost all demonstrators had been quiet, respectful, prayerful. The majority had been middle-aged or older. Nearly all had sought prevention of a conflict in the Middle East through prayer.
The Jan. 16 protest near the White House was different, both in demographics and in message. Demonstrators that night were almost entirely in their 20s, or teens. The mood was loud and disputatious. A sizable number took hard-core antiwar stances, shouting already-familiar slogans: ``No blood for oil,'' and ``We want peace.''
``War isn't the answer to anything,'' politely said a young woman in a stylish ersatz-cowgirl hat. ``You have to think that the bottom line is oil and money.''
But numerous other participants were loud and irrational. Fights nearly erupted with a competing group that supported the invasion.
``The protests were very disappointing to me: Nobody was making any logical arguments,'' said Georgetown University student John Cronin. ``It seems like it was all spurred on by young people who had had too much to drink, or who were on drugs.''
Finally, there were the observers, who hung back in many small groups and watched from other parts of Lafayette Park. ``We came because we wanted to see the reaction of the American public'' to the bombing, said one young Greek student who would not give his name.
Police presence at the White House was as different as the atmosphere and composition of the two crowds. During the earlier candlelight march no more than a dozen police were visible, standing relaxed on the White House lawn.
In the demonstration after the bombing began, police and their vehicles carpeted Pennsylvania Avenue. The street had been closed to traffic and become a parking lot for police vehicles. More than a dozen mounted policemen and women and their sometimes-lathered horses were on duty for hours.
Overall, scores of police were present, either standing in groups at various points along Pennsylvania Avenue, or seated in their cars.