While it is best to err on the side of caution, still the spectacle of dignitaries and tourists alike fleeing Washington’s great buildings – the White House, the U.S. Capitol, the Supreme Court – was unsettling. House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi lost her shoes in the scramble.

As confused and chaotic as the evacuation was, with anxious police yelling, “Run! Run!,” it must be said that the system worked. The two clueless pilots who caused it are OK and authorities, having decided that their incursion into highly restricted airspace was innocent if inept _ outdated maps and a radio tuned to the wrong frequency _did not charge them.

The whole incident lasted just over an hour, from the time air-traffic controllers spotted the little Cessna 150 nearing the restricted airspace that surrounds the capital until the plane landed under escort in nearby Frederick, Md.

The plane was quickly intercepted by a Black Hawk helicopter and a Customs Service jet, and when they couldn’t convince the pilots to turn around, two F-16 fighters firing flares did. The plane was about three miles from the White House when it finally turned around. Officials will not say for sure whether the F-16s would have shot the plane down, but it’s clear they were prepared to.

The incident was similar to the panic caused last June when the Kentucky governor’s aircraft flew into the same restricted airspace with a defective identification beacon. While the number of incursions is dropping, in 18 months beginning in January 2003 Customs jets were scrambled 350 times to warn off wayward aircraft.

If red alerts must be part of capital life _ and radar anomalies have sent the president and vice president into the White House bunker _ there has to be a more orderly, systematic way of evacuating than a general panic. The old-fashioned public-school fire drill comes to mind. And indeed the authorities should assess whether there is more danger in fleeing than in staying put.

We do not want to convey to the world an image of a national capital so totally spooked by the threat of terrorism. It might start giving the wrong people ideas.

(Contact Dale McFeatters at McFeattersD(at)SHNS.com)