When the Pentagon announced it would be staging a march on September 11, 2005, to commemorate the victims of 9/11 and show support for the troops, it was hard not to expect the worst: Triumph of the Will on the Potomac.
But after three of the dullest hours of my life, I'm happy to report those fears proved unfounded. Maybe it was the fact that the nation's attention remains focused on the disaster in the Gulf, or that the President's approval ratings have themselves sunk below sea level, or maybe it was just that Sunday also happened to be the first day of the NFL season, but of the 15,000 people who'd registered online for the 1.7 mile walk from the Pentagon to the Mall, only about a third showed up. Stacks of t-shirts and plastic dog tags, which were distributed to every marcher, sat unused on the registration tables. At the post-march concert, organizers had set up a Jumbotron 50 yards from the stage to broadcast the image of country music star Clint Black (author of the pro-war hit song, "Iraq and Roll") to the throngs who couldn't get close enough to the action. But there were no throngs-just a few thousand folks in identical white t-shirts sitting on the grass and clapping politely.
The crowd seemed to consist mostly of military families from the D.C. Metro area, Pentagon and other federal employees (who had received emails from their Department heads "urging" them to attend), at least one contingent of local college Republicans, a smattering of area residents and a small group of 9/11 family members. There were military parents with pictures of their sons and daughters pressed onto buttons. One woman wore a t-shirt with the words "These Belong To An Army Soldier" written across her chest.
It's hard to recall the last state-sponsored march in the United States, but if this one was any indication, they lack the vitality of their non-government-sanctioned counterparts. It being, ostensibly, a memorial event, there were no drums, no bullhorns, and no cheers-(Two-Four-Six-Eight: We Want To Commemorate?)-but the atmosphere wasn't so much somber as simply quiet. People walked and chatted with each other while occasionally admonishing their kids to stay close. I felt like I was standing in a really long line to buy movie tickets.
Which is not to say that things didn't run smoothly. After several weeks on the defensive for its response to hurricane Katrina, it was refreshing to see the administration back on top of its game. At the Freedom Walk there was no confusion or chaos, no lines that led to nowhere or promises of buses that never came. Marchers arriving in the Pentagon Metro station were met by an army of volunteers in blue shirts, helpfully dispensing information and pointing which direction to go. There were police out in great numbers, and paramedics in bright red shirts on shiny new bikes, in case anyone needed medical assistance. With the sun blaring and the temperature flirting with 90, dehydration was a possibility, but before the march started and again at the one-mile mark, a dozen volunteers standing besides pallets of water eagerly dispersed bottles to the crowd.
Rumsfeld rides to the rescue
With its Swiss-like precision and muted tone, the event's only moment of genuine excitement came when Donald Rumsfeld emerged from a phalanx of SUVs, and was mobbed by marchers seeking photographs and hand shakes. He moved through the crowd schmoozing and smiling, surrounded by an arc of secret service, his suit jacket tossed saucily over his shoulder. A young college Republican in front of me made eye contact with Rummy and then threw up his fist in a kind of "Rock on Mr. Secretary" salute.
When the crowd passed two protesters holding signs ("Wake Up Sheeple, Bush is a liar"), a Rumsfeld aide encouraged marchers to chant "U-S-A" and they obliged with the day's only display of passion. Boos rained down on the hapless demonstrators. "Shame on you," one woman screamed. "People are dying for you!" But the outburst subsided as quickly as it rose up, and the crowd resumed its somnambulant pace.
While many participants told me they viewed the event as a chance to publicly rebuke opponents of the war, it was surprisingly difficult to find full-throated support for the Iraq occupation. When I asked Mark Shephard, a Coast Guard employee who manages port security, how he thought the war on terror was going four years later, he just shook his head and said: "I don't really have a political statement on that."
Perhaps most striking about the march was that it awkwardly called attention to the diminishing returns of 9/11, the original fount of the White House's political capital. What was once The Day That Changed Everything has become so sentimentalized that it is now, simply, A Sad Thing That Happened. When Rumsfield addressed the crowd, in between Clint Black ballads, he told them the last time he'd walked across Memorial Bridge was for the funeral of JFK Jr. The point, I guess, was that too was sad.
Four years later, 9/11 has come to occupy a strange position in our cultural imagination. Like the day Kennedy was assassinated, everyone has their story of where they were, tales they tell eagerly, unprompted. But whereas once these memories had a raw and terrifying immediacy, you now get the sense they are indulged and lingered over like the bittersweet remembrance of an adolescent heartbreak. That 9/11 has lost the edge of rage it inspired in many is a good thing for the republic and a bad thing for the Republicans.
A heavy cross to bear
After the march dispersed, I came upon John, a retiree from Sarasota, Fla., who was trekking around the mall with a 7-foot, 80-pound wooden cross on his shoulder. With sweat dripping down his forehead and pooling in his eyes, John told me his own 9/11 story. On that day, he, like the president, was in Sarasota. When he saw the news, John drove around town looking for a cross to carry because he "thought it was a good time to get back to basics with the Lord." He went to the Salvation Army, but all they had was "a little skinny one." His church had a perfect one, but refused to unbolt it from the sanctuary where it hung. Finally, one pastor dug up an old prop from a Christmas pageant and John spent the next five days walking around Sarasota with it on his shoulders.
"People stopped me, asked me to pray for the families, or for their brother who was in jail," John told me. "They were scared, you know, we were scared about what was going on. I guess they needed someone to come along and encourage their spirits. That's all I want to do and, I think that's what the president wants to do. I think he wants to say, look, nothing's going to harm us as long as we stay close to God."
For the fourth anniversary of the terrorist attacks, he figured he'd come to Washington, where he was staying with a relative, but he had further destinations in mind. "I'm hoping to get to Baghdad. I tried to get in last year but it's hard. I mean, that would be a real sign of freedom."
Is it strange to lug a wooden cross around in 90-degree heat? Sure. But at least it's a genuine and organic exercise of free expression, which is more than can be said of the Freedom Walk.