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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Silence Broken Only by Sirens

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WASHINGTON -- If the stores hadn't run out there'd be a flag on every building. Cars fly enormous flags. People wear flag earrings, flag t-shirts, red-white-and-blue lapel pins.

And there's prayer.

The Washington Post reports nine out of 10 Americans offered up a prayer on Tuesday. People are quietly certain of a benevolent God, even if, as President Bush puts it, "his purposes are not always our own."

On Saturday, I slipped into my hometown church for Mass. I won't say I felt a need to go to church; more a curiousity about how I'd feel once I was there.

The readings were about forgiveness -- haven't heard much of that lately. The final hymn was "God Bless America," which I've never heard sung in a Catholic church before, but sure enough it's been in the St. Peter's song book all along. At the end, everyone applauded.

Many are just as certain they've seen the Devil's face, captured in an AP photo of the smoke billowing from the World Trade Center.'s top five bestselling books include two histories of the trade center, two books on terrorism and the prophecies of Nostradamus.

It's the same Good vs. Evil story when it comes to world reactions to our tragedies. Americans have heard of only two peoples: Palestinians shooting into the air to celebrate, and Russians laying flowers at the U.S. Embassy.

Those celebrating were immediately disowned by their countrymen. Yasser Arafat even gave blood for the New York victims (no one remembers him doing that after suicide bombings against Israel). So, we know it's not fair to make much of the celebrating Palestinians, but of course everyone does. It fits the storyline in our heads.

But the wonderful plot twist was the warmth of the Russians, which has surprised and touched many Americans. (It would never have surprised Moscow Times readers, of course.)

The Tuesday of the attacks I drove from my Maryland home into Washington. There was no traffic my way on Connecticut Avenue, but a long, orderly line of cars leaving. Eventually I had to park and start walking, from the White House to the Pentagon.

The downtown was surreally quiet. The radio had (incorrectly) reported a car bomb at the State Department and the Washington Mall in flames.

But the Mall was peaceful -- just a few joggers acting doggedly normal, while sirens echoed weirdly in the silence.

National monuments were cordonned off with hastily strung yellow police lines -- who knew, they could be targets. Police officers would call politely, "Are you on your way home sir?" I would reply that I was, and thank him, and he would thank me. People were incredibly courteous that day.

At the Pentagon I walked through another eerily silent patch, a place where hours earlier they had conducted triage. Napkins, rubber gloves and medical packaging lay scattered on the grass. For a while I watched the Pentagon burn.

And for a while I sat in a beautiful little park next to the Pentagon, on a bench, all by myself, and listened to the cicadas, and the sirens. When I left I found I'd been sitting in the Lyndon B. Johnson Memorial Grove -- dedicated to a man most Americans associate with the Vietnam War. It was the most peaceful place I've ever found in Washington.

Matt Bivens, a former editor of The Moscow Times, is a Washington-based fellow of The Nation Institute [].