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The View From 1982: The Washington Monument Standoff

A young Komarow. (Maureen Keating/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
A young Komarow. (Maureen Keating/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

It’s been more than three decades since Steve Komarow, news director and vice president at CQ News, was thrust into the national spotlight when he negotiated with a political activist threatening to blow up the Washington Monument. It’s a situation he is positive would play out much differently in the post-9/11 world.  

“You can imagine someone trying to do that today,” the veteran reporter said of the hours-long standoff on Dec. 8, 1982, after nuclear disarmament advocate Norman D. Mayer drove a truck purportedly packed with explosives right up to the doors of the Washington Monument.  

The then-mystery man trapped nine people inside the historic structure and demanded to speak to a single, childless member of the media. Enter Komarow. Then with The Associated Press, Komarow volunteered and found himself opposite a shadowy figure — “He looked really odd,” he said of the motorcycle helmet-clad perpetrator — gripping a gadget drone enthusiasts would easily recognize.  

“His remote control device that he was allegedly going to set off this bomb with … was a drone controller,” Komarow said of the Futaba radio control unit police instructed him to keep an eye on.  

The initial task was to get the hostages released, something Komarow achieved with relative ease.  

“He wanted to publicize his cause … and to try to get the countries of the world to all give up nuclear weapons,” Komarow said of Mayer’s endgame.  

Mayer was unable to see that happen though, perishing from a barrage of sniper fire loosed when he attempted to flee the scene.  

“You almost had the feeling that he was just done. He felt that he’d made his point and maybe he could just drive home,” Komarow said. The truck turned out to contain no explosives.  

At the time, police said their mission was to incapacitate the truck, not eliminate the driver. Komarow suspects that using deadly force is now the default option.  

“I think today there’s no doubt they would have shot to kill from the get-go, just as you saw in San Bernardino … because they just don’t take any chances,” he said.  

In Komarow’s view, Mayer’s stunt was really a cautionary tale.  

“It does strike me that incidents like this were the beginning of a progression toward what we’ve seen today. It’s just like gun violence, you’ve seen from going from really isolated incidents to such a common thing,” he said. “And I think its just part of that continuum.”  

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