I was scheduled to testify today at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office's "Patent Theatre" in Crystal City, Virginia, on the intellectual property aspects of the proposed Hague Convention on Jurisdiction. I had sweated for days over a prepared oral statement about the treaty's implications for student coders and journalists.
My friend Rob Carlson and I left Baltimore early (shortly after 7:00 a.m.) and deposited ourselves at an outlying Metro stop, intending to take the subway into Crystal City. We arrived without incident.
Upon disembarking at Crystal City, I gave the sounds of various sirens little heed -- even as the municipality's Battalion Chief (fire department) roared past, red and white lights flashing.
"There must be a fire nearby," Rob said, glancing upward as fluffy chunks of ash drifting down into the USPTO's courtyard like huge downy feathers.
The hearing room was uncharacteristically vacant. I sat down next to my former boss, Consumer Project on Technology director Jamie Love, and flipped open my laptop to read over my prepared oral testimony.
"Did you hear? A plane hit the World Trade Center in New York!" Jamie whispered excitedly, ensconced in a pile of laptop peripherals and scattered newspapers. I froze momentarily, floppy disk half inserted into my laptop. Looking up, I noticed most of the hearing's attendees appeared to be in shock. A few sat rigid in their seats, hands folded in their laps, staring ahead in numbed silence. Others milled about, busily discussing the foreign policy ramifications of the morning's events. No one seemed to be concentrating on the hearing.
Federal government officials present -- (I recognized members of the U.S. State Department, Copyright Office and PTO) reacted differently -- receiving the sporadic stream of dispatches and rumors from PTO staffers running in and out of the Theatre with detached contemplation. It appeared that the Feds had discarded their usual mantle of chatty, diplomatic ambiance, and had switched into Crisis Mode.
"If anyone really wants to testify now, they can. At this time, we are not evacuating the building," proclaimed a Patent Office functionary. No one took her up on her offer, and several folks murmured quietly about the inappropriateness of proceeding with the hearing given the context and magnitude of events.
More runners entered the Theater, bearing news of additional disasters -- some alleged, some actual. Rumors about the destruction of various Washington agencies and landmarks whipped throughout the conference room.
I closed my laptop, which had been teetering idle on my lap for several minutes. People started for the door, hesitating in case the unspoken consensus for scrapping the hearing was improbably reversed. Cell phones were whipped out of suit pockets and family members dialed to no effect.
"You can always submit written testimony." declared U.S. delegate to the Hague Conference and PTO attorney-advisor Jennifer Lucas as the long-planned hearing disintegrated.
I felt a mix of emotions: disappointed that I wouldn't have the chance to testify and lock horns with the MPAA and other industry lobbyists, and guilty for having such self-centered thoughts during this crisis.
Rob and I headed out toward the lobby. He decided that we should skip the elevator and go down a flight of stairs to the lobby.
The courtyard of the Patent Office facility (which had been nearly deserted when we arrived) was packed with a milling, chattering crowd. Security guards peered about pensively as if reassuring themselves that the building was indeed still standing. Soon after, a shout went up that the Patent Office was being evacuated.
The head of the U.S. Delegation to the Hague Conference (and State Department legal advisor) Jeff Kovar brushed past me with an associate in tow.
"We're walking to the State Department." Kovar grimly mentioned to no one in particular, and started the long hike back to his office.
Rob and I weaved our way through gridlocked traffic and headed toward the Crystal City Metro station. Several Federal Marshalls stood about -- one wearing a boxy bulletproof vest, another wearing a pink blouse with a lanyard ID. Military personnel huddled together on the sidewalk, segregated according to the hue of their uniforms. Fast moving, thin white clouds rushed overhead. I wasn't sure if they were really smoke pluming from the Pentagon.
We jumped into a Yellow Line train alongside a pair of blue-shirted Air Force officers. I watched as an orange ladybug crawled up the silver-stitched epaulet of the officer closest to me, and informed him of its presence. He stared at me for a silent moment before carefully removing the insect.
"That's the least of my problems," he said. "Thanks anyway."