In a city that thrives on pageant and ceremony, a place where a sense of self-importance can override a sense of humility, the remembrance of Sept. 11 played out while the nation's capital marched largely in the lock step of a normal day.
The notable exception was a moving memorial service at the now-rebuilt Pentagon, where President Bush delivered tribute to the 184 victims of the attack that struck a symbolic blow at American military might.
"At every turn of this war, we will always remember how it began and who fell first--the thousands who went to work, boarded a plane or reported to their posts. Today the nation pays our respects to them," the president said to an invited crowd of 13,000 uniformed and civilian Pentagon employees, victims' families, schoolchildren, congressional leaders, foreign dignitaries and Cabinet members.
As Bush spoke, soldiers and civilians alike could be seen wiping away tears as they struggled with taut emotions.
Yet, just as the tragedy here was confined to that famous structure across the Potomac, so too was the grandeur of the memorials.
Instead, there were clusters of smaller ceremonies and many individual portraits of commemoration--from a prayer service, to a group of airline workers honoring fallen colleagues, to a woman whose slacks were a left leg of stars and a right leg of stripes, to the panhandler with a flag stuck in his cap.
The state of normalcy in Washington now includes knowing that Vice President Dick Cheney is again ensconced in a secure, undisclosed location, and that the city is protected by surface-to-air missiles and around-the-clock missions of F-16s whose dull roars add comfort to some but keep others awake at night.
The lines of tourists were modest at most of the monuments, including those most visible and vulnerable, such as the Capitol and the Washington Monument. While visitors could still touch the famous stone obelisk, they had to walk around concrete barriers to get there. And while tourists could still visit the Capitol, some of its most picturesque views have been long closed to the public.
On the Memorial Bridge, itself considered a terrorist target, a plaintive early-morning parade consisted of about 20 peace protesters--half dressed in black at the front, half dressed in white in the back, most of them carrying signs that said "Wage Peace" or "Revenge Brings Revenge."
At the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, a roll call of the Sept. 11 dead was read by Holocaust survivors and other volunteers in a place that is a daily reminder of horror, suffering and the need to remember.
Martin Weiss, 73, a survivor of Auschwitz, was among those who read the roll. And to him, the death tolls--whether 6 million in the Holocaust or more than 3,000 on Sept. 11--are not nearly as important as this realization: "They are not just numbers," Weiss said. "They are individuals."
Weiss was moved to tears when he recalled watching one woman recount in a television interview how she was badly burned in the attacks. "That lady had something like 41 operations," he said. "She had this nice husband and this nice child. They seemed like a good family. . . .
"And each person that lost someone has to live with this all their lives, and there are all these orphans."
Comfort in `Let's roll'
Along with them were parents who lost children, some of whom came to the National Mall, America's rarefied theme park of democracy.
David Beamer, whose son, Todd, was among the heroes of United Airlines Flight 93 that crashed near Shanksville, Pa., attended a ceremony for airline workers at the foot of the Washington Monument. As he scanned the Mall, with its views of the Capitol and the South Lawn of the White House, he thought about the tragedy his son and others might well have prevented.
Beamer's last words before joining passengers in an effort to thwart the hijacking were the now-familiar "Let's roll." They have become a motto for his father as well. "What do I hear today?" the father asked. "I hear played over and over in my head the last recorded words of Todd Morgan Beamer. It was such a blessing to have that recorded."
Indeed--though no one can say conclusively--the heroics of those passengers may have prevented their doomed flight from crashing into the White House or the Capitol, a disaster that no doubt would have been seen in the same calamitous terms as the strikes on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
The halls of Congress were ghostly quiet as tourists stayed away and lawmakers attended memorial services or delivered formal testimonials on the floors of the Senate and House. Some of them held fast to the belief that their fates might have been determined by people like Todd Beamer.
"Flight 93, we now find out, was headed for the Capitol," said Sen. Don Nickles (R-Okla.). "We thank God for those heroes on the plane."
Bob Stevenson, an aide to Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) and a 22-year veteran of congressional politics, said his wife and children had just discussed the new book, "Let's Roll," written by Beamer's wife, Lisa.
"There's a great feeling throughout the Capitol of gratitude and debt to people on that flight," Stevenson said. "I think about it almost every day."
But instead of a terrorist attack in the District of Columbia, the physical damage was confined to the giant gash through the limestone walls and inner rings of the Pentagon.
Ceremonies there helped civilian contractor Thomas Bortner put the events further behind him. He was in a meeting just one floor above where the nose of American Airlines Flight 77 came to rest; he escaped the building unharmed.
"I found myself sitting there, after the event was over, and just sort of taking a deep breath," Bortner said. "A deep sigh and an appreciation that I am here to do it."
The airline workers, many of whom now consider themselves front-line troops in the war on terrorism, were moved to laud the likes of Capt. Charles "Chick the Rocket Man" Burlingame, the pilot of Flight 77 that crashed into the Pentagon, and Alfred Marchand, who had become a United flight attendant after 21 years as a police officer, only to die on United Flight 175 that hit the World Trade Center.
A star for each plane
"This is where I belong," said Nikkie Carrier, a colleague of Marchand's. "I can't imagine being anywhere else today." The airline workers wore red and blue ribbons with four stars, one for each of the doomed flights.
A prayer service at the National Cathedral brought together many people of faith who had been there for a millennium celebration just a couple of years before in a far more optimistic time. Then, South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu led an interfaith service in which he prayed that world might then be entering an epoch of lasting global peace.
On Wednesday, Tutu returned to the cathedral, joined as before by representatives of the world's major religions, to lament what he called "an outrage of unspeakable sorrow and evil."
One event that swelled with crowds was the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History's new exhibition: "September 11: Bearing Witness to History. "This is where everyone seems to want to be," said museum spokeswoman Valeska Hilbig.
This story was reported by Stephen J. Hedges, Michael Kilian, William Neikirk, Jill Zuckman and Michael Tackett of the Tribune's Washington bureau and Orlando Sentinel correspondent Gwyneth Shaw. It was written by Michael Tackett.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times