I usually enjoy going to protests. I take pictures of outrageous signs, get kooky quotes from participants, and get the clearest picture by quietly blending into the crowd and keeping my eyes and ears peeled.

Yet when a West Hollywood friend unwittingly stumbled upon Saturday's anti-war protest that tangled traffic at Hollywood and Highland, he promptly left a message on my cell phone, remarking on the odd "'60s throwback" look of the rally and wondering if I was there milling about the demonstrators.

I wasn't. For the first time, I skipped the protests. On one hand, I may have been simply bored by the thought of another ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism) coalition-hosted event, which brings the same faces and wide variety of causes with the same placards. Same drum circles, different day. Same semi-celebrity cameos acting like celebrities are experts on military strategy.

But I also wasn't in the mood for the increasingly virulent rhetoric. And the past week had me feeling like discourse on topics of war and terrorism in this country had sunk to a depth from which we might not recover.

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, whose five o'clock shadow and fuzzy nightshirt-clad body was seen 'round the world after Pakistani authorities roused him from slumber in 2003, reportedly confessed to planning 9-11 and a host of other attacks, as well as the beheading of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in 2002.

This Guantanamo confessional was hardly a surprise - after Mohammed's capture, he spent three days with Pakistani officials confessing plot tidbits, "during which time we interrogated him fully," assured President Pervez Musharraf in his memoir. Musharraf also fingered Mohammed as the probable killer of Pearl, as did a Time magazine story last fall.

Because the only way I would watch "The View" would be if my eyelids were clamped open a la "A Clockwork Orange," I later saw the clips of Rosie O'Donnell making the baseless claim that Mohammed had been tortured, a claim made by - guess who! - Mohammed and a popular sentiment across left-wing blogs that day. Never mind that a wily terrorist would get a paper cut from the "Harry Potter" selection in the Gitmo library and wail it was torture.

While there are certainly people who deserve the right to pull out Mohammed's back hairs one by one, it's disheartening how much time is dedicated to alleging that America must be torturing the Gitmo prisoners and how little effort is spent denouncing the terrorists themselves. The truly disheartening thing about "The View" was the audience who heartily applauded the spiel.

While listening to O'Donnell complain that terrorists were robbed of their "humanity," all I could think of was wheelchair-bound Leon Klinghoffer being shot and thrown off the Achille Lauro by Palestinian terrorists in 1985. From that PLO crime to the atrocities committed by al-Qaida - and its operations chief, Mohammed - one can safely say terrorists' "humanity" went out the window a long time ago.

Hence I skipped an afternoon of signs decrying Bush as Hitler and deriding the U.S. as militant monsters. But it turns out that the best reason to hit the pavement on Saturday was over in Washington, D.C.

You would have been hard-pressed to hear so in most media coverage, but Vietnam veterans and other concerned Americans showed up from as far away as Hawaii and Alaska - one unofficial estimate pegged their numbers at 30,000 - to ring and defend the war memorials in the nation's capital, easily outnumbering the ANSWER protesters who drew the bulk of the coverage.

Kristinn Taylor, D.C. coordinator and spokesman for Gathering of Eagles, said anti-war protesters tried to break through their lines and reach the memorials, but "they were not successful." Taylor said the Vietnam vets came together and took a stand for an important reason: "They do not want to see this generation of American servicemen and women be put through what they went through."

As a frequent protest crasher, I'm sorry I missed this sea change in the tired old script of Iraq demonstrations. It was even more uplifting to read messages left afterward on the Eagles' blog by participants.

"Forty years lost in the wilderness," wrote one. "Forty years in exile. Behind us now. Yesterday we took our country back. It's in the air. I can feel it. ... We have to care enough to save it. I have hope again."

Bridget Johnson writes for the Daily News. Write to her by e-mail at bridget.johnson@dailynews.com.