This is what we're walking for when we walk for freedom, according to participants in the Pentagon-sponsored Freedom Walk yesterday:
To remember the victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. To support the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. To support the war in Iraq. To support the war on terrorism. To support American troops in all 177 countries where they serve. To support particular American troops, such as Sgt. Edward Scherz at Camp Fallujah in Iraq. To remember those killed in action in Iraq, such as Spec. Kyle Andrew Griffin. To support veterans. To raise money for the Pentagon Memorial to 9/11 victims. To raise money for the victims of Hurricane Katrina.
These are troubled times, and it can seem as if all the bad news is somehow connected. Calamities are separated by just a couple of jumps on the big checkerboard of dread we now inhabit. One message of the Freedom Walk from the Pentagon to the Mall was that everybody can put on the same T-shirt and respond to it all.
"My boyfriend is over in Iraq, and we're here to support the cause," said Denise Brown, 27, of Centreville. She wasn't wearing the official white Freedom Walk T-shirt worn by thousands of participants. She and her group of a dozen were wearing green ones with the names of her boyfriend -- Scherz, 24 -- and his comrades under the headline "America's Heroes."
Scherz just left in July, so he'll be in the danger zone for a while. Tears came to Brown's eyes as she spoke of it. The tears were contagious. They spread to Scherz's sister, JoAnn, 21.
"No crying today," JoAnn Scherz said after it was too late.
"We're here because something horrific happened" -- 9/11 -- "and now we have family and friends who are over there and supporting our country and fighting for us to be free," Brown said.
That's the triple checker jump: From Sept. 11, by way of Iraq, to Freedom.
But what might 9/11 and Katrina have in common? Ask President Bush.
"Over the last 11 days in Louisiana and Mississippi and Alabama, we have again seen acts of great compassion and extraordinary bravery from America's first responders," Bush said Friday at a White House ceremony for the 9/11 Heroes Medal of Valor.
Katrina can be linked in a different direction. Several days last week antiwar demonstrators rallied outside the White House, connecting Katrina with Iraq. They said the war diverted resources from the homeland, and the government's response to the hurricane revealed the administration's lack of concern for poor African Americans.
Yesterday those who walked two miles for freedom were invited to stop by the Red Cross tent to learn how they could help hurricane victims.
Sometimes people caution against linking everything to everything, but such advice often goes unheeded. Not discussed much yesterday were President Bush's acknowledgments that Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with Sept. 11. And never mind that Pentagon spokesmen have insisted that the Freedom Walk was not a pro-war stroll. It was about the troops, said the spokesmen, not the war.
Most of the walkers strayed way off those messages. They made the connections. Survivors of the Pentagon attack walked with relatives of soldiers in Iraq. Legless veterans of Iraq sat in the front row at the post-walk Clint Black concert, beside family members of those who died in the Pentagon or aboard American Airlines Flight 77 on 9/11.
The walkers echoed Bush on other occasions when he linked Sept. 11 to Iraq in a greater drama of a war on terror.
"I had three good friends in the Pentagon," said Gary Hinson, an assistant school principal retired from the Army. "All killed. . . . This was Pearl Harbor for the war on terror."
"I've always believed the people who died on September 11 were the first casualties of this war," Ronald Griffin -- whose son Kyle died in a truck accident between Mosul and Tikrit two years ago -- said Friday as he was preparing to drive down from New Jersey for the walk. "The war in Iraq, the war on terror, the war in Afghanistan. The war is not just in Iraq. The war is everywhere."
The walkers also said their support for the troops was inextricably linked to support for the war.
"What I've never really understood is how someone could say they support the troops but they don't support the war. . . . Because the troops want to win the war," said Debra Burlingame, who walked in memory of her brother Charles F. Burlingame III -- pilot of the hijacked plane that struck the Pentagon -- and to say thank you to the troops wherever they serve.
Such logic baffles freedom walker Mimi Evans from Hyannis, Mass., mother of a Marine serving in Iraq. She said she supported him by walking for freedom while wearing a white T-shirt that said in red and blue letters: "No more lies, no more lives."
A good Marine must follow orders and assume the war policy is correct, she said, while a responsible civilian can question the policy. She wanted to interrupt the checker pieces, break some of the links that were being made on the Freedom Walk. "I'm sorry, there's absolutely no connection between my freedom to be an American and what our troops are doing in Iraq," she said. "There's no connection between what our military is doing and 9/11."
Evans, 56, a fundraiser for an international animal welfare group, was one of a relative few skeptics of the war who walked yesterday. One young man had written on his shirt: "I support our troops who shoot their officers."
Evans, the mother of an officer, could not connect with that message either.
After the concert, the walkers dispersed, and many passed through the World War II Memorial on their way north into the city. They rounded the corner in the memorial where Franklin Roosevelt's words after Pearl Harbor are etched. Some stopped to read, and to see a connection, or not: "The American people, in their righteous might, will win through absolute victory."