In history books, documentaries and news accounts and across popular culture, the shift toward an almost exclusive focus on the New York part of the 9/11 story has been steady and relentless. Amid hundreds of hours of programming in this week’s many television tributes, there are only nominal mentions of the Pentagon attack.
“If I were a family member of a Pentagon victim, I might feel a little deserted,” said James Young, director of the Institute for Holocaust, Genocide and Memory Studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and a leading scholar on how memorials and public memory are shaped.
Comparing one person’s pain with another’s, or one city’s with another’s, can feel disturbing, even petty. Merely to point out that the story of 9/11 has become overwhelmingly a New York story, with the Pentagon attack and its 184 victims relegated to a historical afterthought, might be dismissed as small at first, just another example of Washington’s insecurity and New York’s self-centeredness. But the comparison matters, because memory matters. The stories we tell now about what happened in 2001 will color the history our descendants receive and pass along.
What happened when that Boeing 757 struck the Pentagon 10 years ago must not be allowed to vanish behind the searing drama of the collapse of the twin towers.
There are good, natural reasons for the imbalance between the New York and Pentagon stories — the scope of the losses, the horror of the collapsing buildings in Manhattan — but there are unfortunate, unfair reasons as well: the lack of video footage of the plane hitting the Pentagon, the building’s separation from neighboring communities, the military’s tradition of smoothing over harsh edges, stereotypes about Washington and the armed forces.
And by its very nature, the Pentagon virtually guaranteed that its piece of the 9/11 story would be remembered in far less vivid detail than the tragedy in New York. “The Pentagon is the anti-World Trade Center,” Young said. “It was built to ward off attacks. By fortifying itself against its own destruction, it actually fortified itself against public memory of the attack. The Twin Towers, in contrast, were built aggressively, soaring into the sky and therefore supremely vulnerable.”