Washington tried yet again to get back to normal Monday evening. Unfortunately for the people who live and work here, “normal” means that every time local officials make an effort to quell fears, Attorney General John Ashcroft takes to the airwaves to warn people that a terrorist attack—of some sort, somewhere—may or may not be imminent. The result is a local metropolis trying to grapple with its role as national capital.

U.S. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) had called a town hall meeting, gathering emergency, postal, and economic officials to address the shaken city’s questions and to project civic confidence. Over 400 residents packed a downtown room, eager to hear about everything from anthrax to unemployment insurance.

Norton began by trying to focus the city’s attention on tourism rather than terror. She said aloud what many Washingtonians have been worrying about: that the capital’s economy is in serious trouble because people are afraid to come here. “We face a very real danger of a deep recession,” Norton said. “We have got to begin to send the message out ourselves, that this is the safest city in the United States. It is, ladies and gentlemen.” Brave words, considering that Washington’s closest airport, Reagan National, seems to have more security rules these days than flights, and that the city is perceived as much the seat of anthrax as of government.

Tourism keeps Washington going, and the numbers are stark. Testifying before the Senate Subcommittee on Tourism on Oct. 12, Mayor Williams indicated that the local economy was projected to lose $750 million over the next 18 months, while city coffers would lose about $200 million. He said half the District’s hotel and restaurant employees are out of work. A jaunt across Capitol Hill reveals virtually empty tour buses. The Capitol lawn, usually teeming with tourists, is deserted.

But most of the locals gathered at Norton’s meeting seemed to be worried about the same things that travelers are worried about: their health and safety. Officials from the United States Postal Service and the U.S. Surgeon General’s office tried to explain to angry postal workers why they had not been tested for anthrax sooner. (The Centers for Disease Control didn’t think they were in danger.) One particularly irate African-American worker drew applause when he insisted that “there is a double standard,” and that “our life is not as important as white life in the Senate.” He demanded that Norton help workers file a lawsuit against the federal government on those charges, a notion that brought cheers all around.

The large contingent of postal workers had shown up expecting to grill Deborah Willhite, senior vice president of governmental relations and public policy at the Postal Service, but Willhite couldn’t make it. She was apparently somewhere else being briefed on the new terrorism warning. Indeed, Norton’s strategy of reassurance was soon eclipsed by the federal strategy of placing the country on alert. “I understand from the press that there has been another alert.” Seemingly peeved that she had to hear about it from reporters, Norton relayed Ashcroft’s warning of a possible terrorist action. “I can’t tell you anything more because I learned it from the press. I know from the last one that we didn’t see any difference, so I have to hope that’s what this alert means.”

The last such warning, issued on Oct. 11, came at an even more inopportune moment for the capital. The Washington Convention and Tourism Corp. had dreamed up an ambitious plan to lure wary people back into town over the October 13-14 weekend. The city’s transit system waived fares, approximately 400 local businesses and restaurants pitched in with steep discounts, and a $200,000 public relations campaign let everyone in the region know about the bargains. Then came Ashcroft’s warning, just two days before launch. “Freebies Fail to Lure Wary Public to Downtown D.C.,” The Washington Post announced in a headline afterward. A spokesman for Washington Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) told the Post,  “The FBI's somewhat unsubstantiated alert took the wind out of everybody's sails.”

Washington’s still kicking, of course. A semblance of nightlife has returned to such areas as Adams-Morgan and Dupont Circle; hotels and restaurants are doing better than they were in the weeks immediately following Sept. 11; Reagan National is at least open. People obviously would like to resume their former routines. But an increasing number of Washingtonians simply can’t.

On Wednesday, in the shadow of Ashcroft’s latest alert, and two days after Norton’s attempt to instill confidence, The Washington Post ran yet more bad news on its front page. The continuing slump was hitting the area’s most recent arrivals the hardest. “The sweeping layoffs stemming from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks are taking a disproportionate toll on immigrants,” the Post reported, “and few urban melting pots have been hit harder than Washington.”