WASHINGTON — The attacks happened a long way from Anna Berkowitz's school in St. Joseph, Mo., a small town best known for the birth of the Pony Express and the death of Jesse James. But terror's long reach touched her just the same when her school district canceled this spring's senior trip to the nation's capital, once a place to venerate but now a place to fear.
"I'm sure I'll go to Washington someday but never with my senior class," said Berkowitz, who watched her older sister come home from the trip two years ago teeming with photographs and ambition. "President Bush said the best thing to do is go on with life, but I guess this is one experience the terrorists stopped us from having."
On the scale of Sept. 11 tragedies, a lost week in Washington hardly registers. But for the estimated 1 million students who make the pilgrimage each year, it is a rite of passage that has inspired countless teenagers to careers in public policy, politics and, in one case, the presidency.
This year, more than one-quarter of the nation's school districts banned student travel to Washington, a blow to the local economy that has threatened the existence of civic education groups and prompted advertising campaigns to repair the capital city's image as a dangerous place.
At the Close Up and Washington Workshop foundations, which together have brought nearly 30,000 students to the city in past years, enrollment is down as much as 40%, prompting staff reductions and salary cuts. Another bleak year like this one could drive the decades-old groups out of business, their directors said.
"It is impossible to estimate the number of students affected by these restrictions," said Chuck Tampio, a vice president at Close Up, which has brought more than half a million students to Washington in its 30 years. "What is clear is that hundreds of thousands of young people will be denied access to highly formative experiences . . . they may never be able to duplicate later on."
For decades they came by the thousands, some in their uncomfortable Sunday best, to shake the hand of a senator or read the Declaration of Independence etched in granite. Several members of Congress say they first fell in love with Washington on a high school field trip. Bill Clinton was on a youth tour in 1963 when he shook the hand of President Kennedy, a moment that helped define his future.
Students who visit today find a city visibly changed; police are stationed at nearly every corner, and concrete barricades encircle the monuments like scattered dominoes. Chaperons enforce an unpopular 6 p.m. hotel curfew.
But even in this altered state, there is evidence of a capital healing: American flags hang defiantly in the windows of a Senate office building once infected by anthrax. The Pentagon is on the mend; the blackened wound where one of four hijacked planes crashed is now cleaned and dressed in plywood.
"At home in St. Louis, I see the flags out, but here, it affects you," said Melanie Perry, 17, of Clayton High. "There are flags on the cars and the cabs. This is our capital. Everyone is unified."
No Substitute for Firsthand Visits
She and a dozen other high school students had just stepped off a bus one recent morning to find themselves wrapped in history. To the left was the Capitol, where President Bush was about to deliver his first State of the Union address. To the right was the Supreme Court, where justices mulled the legality of school vouchers. Behind them stood the Library of Congress, with its display of the contents of Abraham Lincoln's pockets the night he was assassinated.
Only two days into their visit, most had already connected with their citizenship in a way they could not in a classroom. Charles Newton, a junior at Clarkston High outside of Atlanta, had landed the e-mail address of a State Department official with whom he plans to discuss the war on terrorism.
Amanda Zolfo of Langham Creek High in Houston finally understood the Enron scandal that has been the talk of her hometown.
And Kelli Kuhn, a Langham Creek senior who shot two rolls of film on the architecture alone, would not only watch the president's speech but spend the evening discussing it with her friends. "Now that I'm here, it has new meaning," she said.
But that prevailing sense of patriotism is not, at the moment, the abiding view of Washington. Even while the local defense economy booms with the war, there persists an image that the capital is neither safe nor entirely open for business.
The dwindling number of student tourists has helped cut museum attendance about 45%, sliced into the souvenir market and rolled back business at lower-priced hotels in the Washington area, said tourism officials working to neutralize the damage.
School superintendents were recently invited to meet with Washington Mayor Anthony Williams and the head of security at Ronald Reagan National Airport in an effort to convince them the city is safe.