After 18 months of military overflights, identification checks, sniper attacks and color-coded terrorism alerts, all it took was a man in a tractor to push this jittery city over the edge.
Not just any tractor, but a partially submerged John Deere that its driver, a distraught North Carolina tobacco farmer, said was filled with explosives.
And it wasn't just the rush-hour traffic tie-ups resulting from the standoff with police that caused the meltdown. What sent workers' and residents' paranoia into overdrive was the fact that Dwight Watson had managed Monday to drive his Jeep, pulling the tractor behind it, into a pond between the Washington Monument and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial -- in the most secure part of what should be the most secure city on Earth on what is believed to be the eve of a war.
"Who needs [Iraqi President] Saddam Hussein when you've got Dwight Watson?" one exasperated resident wrote in an e-mail to the Washington Post's Web site. "If this man were an Arab or mid-eastern," wrote another, "they would have killed him already."
But law enforcement officials said they would wait the 50-year-old Watson out. "We're going to be very patient," said Sgt. Scott Fear, spokesman for the U.S. Park Police. "We're making progress. Protection of human life" -- not smooth traffic flow -- "is our No. 1 priority."
And in this spin city, some officials tried to tell frustrated commuters that a security breach that extended the morning rush hour until 11 a.m. should make them feel safer.
That the FBI, the Park Police, the Washington Metropolitan Police Department and other authorities were working together and no one had been hurt "sends a positive message" to people concerned about security, said Park Police Chief Teresa Chambers.
But on the day that Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge officially rolled out Operation Liberty Shield, designed to better protect the nation against terrorist attacks, few residents were buying the happy talk.
Once again, someone angry at the government had managed to find a weak link in America's homeland defense system. In its preoccupation with Al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, Hussein and the war-resistant French, the national security apparatus had failed to defend against disgruntled farmers.
"We've obviously dropped the ball on tobacco subsidies," quipped one worker walking downtown's near-deserted streets on a sunny afternoon.
Watson told the Post that he was on a to-the-death mission to tell Americans that reduced government subsidies to tobacco farmers were driving them out of business. "I'm broke. I'm busted," said Watson, who lives in Whitakers, N.C., and served in the 82nd Airborne as a military police officer during the 1970s.
Sitting in the cab of his large tractor -- festooned with banners, an inverted U.S. flag and another flag depicting yellow tobacco leaves -- Watson told the Post by telephone that God had instructed him to stage his disruptive protest.
More than 24 hours after he drove into the pond, Watson said he wasn't going anywhere.
"If this is the way America will be run, the hell with it," he said. "I'm out of here. I will not surrender. They can blow [me] out of the water. I'm ready to go to heaven."
By evening rush hour Tuesday, however, there was no indication that Watson had won any converts to his cause.
With an eight-block area -- from the Lincoln Memorial almost to the Washington Monument -- blocked off by police, and with institutions including the Federal Reserve, the National Academy of Sciences and the Interior Department off-limits to car traffic, residents were forced to adjust to yet another way in which life was not normal anymore.
Everyone seemed to think the police should do something to end the standoff. Among the most numerous of the e-mails sent to the Post were those that said, "Shoot him."