I have no moral standing. That was my problem at the America Supports You Freedom Walk on Sept. 11. Also my shoes. They were a problem too, or part of the same problem.
The notepad was O.K. It was stuffed into my back pocket, under the shirttail of my polo shirt, which was under the shirttail of my official America Supports You Freedom Walk T-shirt
I was not planning to pull it out. The Freedom Walk was press-restricted—a “sterile” event, The Washington Post had reported earlier in the week. Only registered marchers were allowed to walk the route.
So I was a registered marcher, mustering with the other marchers in the Pentagon’s south parking lot shortly after 8 a.m. The Department of Defense–backed Freedom Walk Web site had not asked would-be participants to certify what they meant by “supports”—or “America,” or “you.”
That was the way the Freedom Walk worked: The Bush administration happened to be holding a march to support the troops. On Sept. 11. Nobody was saying Saddam Hussein was allied with Al Qaeda. Nobody was saying that without the invasion and overthrow, the next terror attack would have used Iraqi W.M.D. Nobody was saying anything.
But I couldn’t stop looking at everybody else’s feet. I had picked out the most innocuous and all-American sneakers I had, old canvas Jack Purcells. The other Freedom Walkers were wearing modern American athletic shoes, puffy and ergonomic white or gray things, with doodads.
I spotted one pair of suede Pumas in the crowd. My eyes swept upward to see a media hang tag around the Puma-wearer’s neck.
Around my own neck was a Freedom Walk dog tag. The Freedom Walk organizers were not subtle, but they were pointedly bland. Posted at the entrance was a warning that signs and banners were prohibited.
Outside, the President’s job-approval ratings were nose-diving; Bill Kristol would be on Fox News the same morning saying George Bush’s handling of emergency management was “not really serious.” The Post had been shamed out of co-sponsoring the event, on the grounds that a newspaper had no business teaming up with the Defense Department. The Iraqi branch of Al Qaeda had seized the city of Qaim and was flying its own flag.
That was outside. I was inside. Two days before the march, as I’d wondered what to wear, I was suddenly seized by a bad idea and went into the Footaction USA store on Seventh Avenue to ask if they had any Pat Tillman jerseys.
“Who’s he?” the clerk had asked.
Nobody else was wearing a Pat Tillman jersey either. There were a few isolated shirts with sentiments like “These Colors Don’t Run,” but mostly the Freedom Walkers were wearing their Freedom Walk shirts. They plopped down on the parking lot to wait.
On a stage, a country-and-western band in Air Force uniform played Warren Zevon’s “Poor, Poor Pitiful Me.” Then it played Patsy Cline’s “Crazy.”
It was Sept. 11. In a clear blue sky, planes from National Airport—Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport—were rumbling low over the Pentagon, low enough to be once again unpleasant to think about. I lined up with other Freedom Walkers for a mini-tour of the rebuilt crash site, in a long, single-file line. The line had inched forward some 50 yards before I overheard the people behind me wondering what it was they were waiting to see. They had lined up on faith.
In front of me, a couple of young African-American kids ate prepackaged apple slices supplied by McDonald’s, a march sponsor. The crowd was white, but not all-white—not as white as a Republican National Convention, or a Pavement concert, to be fair. A military crowd. Some had buttons or iron-on transfers with photos of dead loved ones: Pentagon victims, war dead.
On its own narrow terms—the only visible terms—it was critic-proof. It was one thing to have seen George Pataki grandstanding about Sept. 11 at the Republican convention, turning the civilian slaughter at the World Trade Center into a brief for the Bush administration. But the Pentagon attack was an attack on the armed forces. On the banks of the Potomac, the military has victims’ rights, from the commander in chief on down: We were attacked, we are fighting back. The mingling of the Iraq dead with the dead of 2001—the scandal in the run-up to the march—is not an issue.
And who am I to disagree? Where was I that day? Where have I been since then? A young Air Force guy, striding backwards, led our group around to the one charred stone preserved in the rebuilt building wall. The jet had first hit right over there, he said, pointing, then short-hopped into the building. The stone looked sooty. No pictures, please.
My wife had been in the Capitol, not the Pentagon. By noon, I had known my family would survive the day. Anthrax struck a little closer; we ended up with Cipro in the medicine cabinet. But nobody cares about anthrax. I recalled it while the President’s men lied and dithered about Hurricane Katrina—how they’d lied and dithered about anthrax, too, blaming it on dirty stream water. I couldn’t think of anything they hadn’t lied and dithered about, these four hideous years.
Bad thoughts, again. I skulked through the crowd. A young man sat on the asphalt, reading The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society. How big was the gathering? A few thousand? A minor-league ballpark’s worth. If I’d been up on the press riser, I probably could have done a quick count.
I spotted another MEDIA tag, on a woman in a striped top. She had a familiar expression, familiar because I know how it feels to wear it: the pained, ingratiating look of someone on work-the-crowd-for-quotes duty. I studied her face a moment too long and saw her start to slow and veer my way. Sorry, sorry, no—eyes front, subway face, lock out the peripheral vision.
What would I have possibly said? “Well, ma’am, I’m here because I’m an American citizen, and because I care about Sept. 11, and because I want to know what’s wrong with this country.” The truth, really. I was on the other side of the world when I read about Al Qaeda seizing the town of Qaim, and also about the New Orleans police spokesman who shot himself in the head. Now I was back and what the hell was going on?
A deputy something-or-other of Homeland Security took the stage and gave thanks for the people who wear “the cloth of our nation around the world” and defend our liberties. I had turned on a small digital recorder in my pocket.
“Hooah! Hooah!” someone called out beside me.
The deputy something-or-other then told two stories. The first was about meeting the President the night of Sept. 11, 2001.
“The President said get, get ready,” he said. “He said get ready, he said this is not gonna be like removing a mole, this is gonna be like removing a cancer, it’s going to take a long time, it’s going to be a hard struggle, he said it will take diplomatic actions, it will take financial, he said, but at the end of the day, the military will have to do their job for our nation to be protected and defended, and of course that’s exactly what the military has been doing these last four years.
“And then he went around the room and the President said, ‘Never forget,’ and he pointed at everyone, he said, ‘Never forget, never forget what happened this day,’ he said, ‘I will never forget, and you can never forget, and the American people can never forget what happened,’ he said, ‘but especially us, because we are charged to protect and defend the United States of America and liberty and freedom,’ he said, and I will never forget, and I remember that from that day, because ever since then, everything I’ve heard the President say has been that resolute, about never forget 9/11 and what that means to America, so I thank all of you for helping us to never forget 9/11.”
What I remembered the President saying on 9/11 was substantially shorter. I remember him saying something like “My fellow Americans,” and then saying “glz blkz zizrp” and staggering backwards away from the podium in a hail of wrong-colored pixels, because he was off in a bunker and somebody couldn’t properly cue up the videotaped message he’d left behind. I remember this very specifically and with horror, but nobody else ever talks about it at all.
Then the deputy had a second Sept. 11 story to tell, and this one featured the news media. “A reporter was interviewing, was interviewing a little girl, and it turned out she was 11 years old, and the reporter asked the little girl, he said, ‘What is patriotism? What is patriotism?’ And this little girl said, ‘Patriotism is taking care of America.’ And I thank all of you for your patriotism in taking care of America.”
Afterward, I could not find an interview with such a little girl in Nexis, but not all newspapers go into Nexis, and at any rate the deputy never said the interview was published.
Event staffers had been standing in the crowd holding signs for various government agencies—JUSTICE, INTERIOR—and corporate sponsors, such as LOCKHEED. Employees were supposed to gather around the appropriate signpost.
Around 10, the order came to get moving, and the Freedom Walk began streaming through the gate: Leave the Pentagon and hang a right. I marched out behind the standard of COMMERCE, trailed by HUD and DVA, Veterans Affairs.
It was warm, especially with the extra shirt on. The mood was sunny too. There were backpacks and water bottles—water that people had brought with them, water supplied on site by Subway. The Freedom Walkers were not going to let themselves risk dehydration, even going on a sub-four-mile route.
I dragged my pace a little, to eavesdrop what people were saying. One family reminisced about a hike in the Adirondacks. Some civil servants talked about what it’s like having your pay rate posted in public. I made way for a three-wheeled baby stroller, the kind for joggers with children.
Again, surreptitiously, I flicked on the digital recorder. I had already witnessed everything an ethical and credentialed reporter could witness. I had witnessed all that years ago: Joseph McBlow, 57, of Alexandria, said ….
Afterward, I would mostly hear a heavy SHUSH-SHISH-THUMP, FSSH-THUMP—my own Freedom Walking footsteps, amplified by the acuity of stereo microphones.
Police were spread out along the route—some on foot, some on horseback; some smiling and waving, some in stern event-control posture. A pair of men came up behind me, talking about law enforcement. They were discussing a warning that Oct. 30 had been designated “National Kill a Cop Day” by the dread MS-13 gang. The talk had the besieged, conspiratorial tone of mimeographed police warnings I remembered from elementary school, about how acid pushers were distributing LSD-laced cartoon temporary tattoos on playgrounds to turn kids into desperate acid-junkies. But you can find the bulletin about Kill a Cop Day on the Homeland Security Web site.
Then the older one told the younger one about how back on the home front during Vietnam, his unit had been assigned to defend the colors from protesters. They had intelligence that the demonstrators might try to grab ’em, but not on his unit’s watch.
Up ahead, at one end of the Memorial Bridge, a knot of cameras and boom microphones had formed where the Freedom Walk was turning to cross the Potomac. Wouldn’t you know it, somebody grumbled, it’s probably one protester, see, and all the media wants to talk to him.
As we drew closer, we saw that the cameras were in fact clustering around Donald Rumsfeld. The Defense Secretary then peeled away from the media outpost to join in as one of the marchers, one of us. The Freedom Walkers whooped and applauded, crowding around for handshakes and photos: “Donald Rumsfeld!” “Right there!” “Go up!” “You go up!” “We support you, Don!” “It’s Rumsfeld—right there, the gray hair.” “Yes! Cool beans!”
The Rumsfeld eddy threatened to cut the march in two, as the head of the column continued across the bridge, unaware. Even in a parade, it occurred to me, the man was a crummy tactician. Finally, his bodyguards encouraged people to get a move on again; a staffer on a Segway snapped pictures. We crossed the river, with Donald Rumsfeld.
The real protesters showed up on the other side. There were three of them, holding anti-war signs, behind a fence on the desolate edge of the Mall. There were messages on both sides of the placards, for variety; one had “SHAME ON YOU” on one side and “PRO-WAR IS PRO-TERRORISM” on the other.
“Oh, somebody’s over here doing some political statement,” a woman groaned.
One of the protesters was hollering, in tense, rigid tones: “HOW MANY HAVE TO DIE TO MAKE YOU FEEL SAFE? HOW MANY HAVE TO DIE TO MAKE YOU FEEL SAFE? HOW MANY HAVE TO DIE TO MAKE YOU FEEL SAFE? HOW MANY HAVE TO DIE TO MAKE YOU FEEL SAFE?”
An African-American man rebuked her. “We’re here to support those who died at the Pentagon,” he said, sharply. “It has nothing to do with the war.”
“IT’S RACIST, THE WAR IS RACIST, DON’T YOU KNOW THAT?” she hollered back.
The ritual unfolded and reiterated, stupid and hostile as ever, the way it would for any protest, any war, any date. “You guys can leave, you guys can leave the country!” “Pathetic losers!” “Get a life!” “Go to another country!”
“HOW MANY PEOPLE HAVE TO DIE TO MAKE YOU FEEL SAFE?”
“Have you heard of the Revolutionary War? People died!”
“DON’T ASSAULT ME! … GET OUT OF MY FUCKING FACE, ASSHOLE!”
“No! No, no! No, no, no, no.” “Rip it down!” “Did you protest Al Qaeda? Have you protested Al Qaeda? Have you protested Al Qaeda?”
A marcher stopped and asked the demonstrators to flip their signs around, so he could snap pictures of the messages on both sides. They obliged, and he thanked them.
Another man veered close to them, accompanied by a child, to deliver the coup de grâce. “This is why America is great,” he said, “because people have different opinions.”
A few hundred yards further along, on the other side, came yet another different opinion, thanks to a delegation from the Rev. Fred Phelps. The Rev. Fred, best known for his GOD HATES FAGS demonstrations, has concluded that terrorism and war are the Lord’s punishment for a sinful nation. To fight is to abet the sin.
Hence the messages, on oversized and neon-colored signs: “GOD HATES FAG ENABLERS …. THANK GOD FOR SEPT. 11 …. THANK GOD FOR DEAD SOLDIERS …. SEMPER FI FAGS …. THANK GOD FOR IEDs.”
The Rev. Fred Phelps is a nutjob. But his forces were the only voices on the parade route that sounded of smoke and fear and death—that cried apocalypse. “TOE TAGS!” a Phelps-ite girl sneered at the passing Freedom Walkers. “TOOOOOE … TAAAAAGS! … TOOOOOE … TAAAAAGS!”
Or, as a red-white-and-blue sign put it: AMERICA IS DOOMED. And who was there to rebut her?
In the end, the Freedom Walk debouched on the Mall, where the job of putting a moral on the day fell to Clint Black. Donald Rumsfeld offered a few brief remarks, hailing from the stage a contingent of wounded troops from Walter Reed Hospital, and in the next section over, the parents of Sept. 11 victims. “This is the first March for Freedom,” Mr. Rumsfeld said, “and looking at the size of this crowd, I suspect it won’t be the last one.” Presumably, though the Secretary didn’t address the point, we’re not on course to run out of amputees and widows for the future versions.
Then Mr. Rumsfeld yielded the stage to the headliner, in jeans and a black shirt. “Much should be said,” Mr. Black declared, “and if I intended to go into politics I might actually say it.
“But since I don’t wish to,” he added. “I’m going to let the music do much of the talking.”
Mr. Black then explained what his first song was going to say. It was a new number, he said, and “it uses words like ‘heroes’ and ‘good guys.’”
The music began. “All my life,” Mr. Black sang, “I’ve been a cowboy in my heart.” As promised, the song was straightforward: “It’s good to see the bad guys on the run / While our modern-day heroes show them how the West was won.”
And then, the refrain:
The code of the West was black and white
The good guys and the bad
You would always know who’s wrong or right
By the color of their hat ….
But Mr. Black, it turned out, is a more complicated moral philosopher than that. His next song opened with a declaration that “everything’s not black or white / There’s always something in between.” Intrigued, I flipped on the recorder again, in time to catch the next bit: “Take a look around and find a better man / Upright no matter how he’s faring,” Mr. Black sang. “No matter what kind of shoes he’s wearing.”