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.”
Beyond architecture, the culture of the Pentagon has contributed to the diminution of the story of the attack there. “The military by its nature is secretive, and that’s the way they handled 9/11,” said Rick Newman, co-author of “Firefight: Inside the Battle to Save the Pentagon on 9/11,” a 2008 book that is one of the few to focus on the Virginia attack. In New York, every time a victim’s remains were recovered from the ruins, news cameras captured the image and broadcast it worldwide. “But at the Pentagon,” Newman said, “they moved trucks in front of the cameras and hung barriers so the news people couldn’t look in.”
Even the Pentagon’s efficiency militated against public memory of the attack there. The reconstruction of the building was a heroic rebuke to the terrorists, yet it served to erase the image that had kept the strike in the news. The black scar on the Pentagon’s west wall vanished within a year, whereas the hole at Ground Zero has remained, a daily reminder of the assault.
The years-long rancor and debate surrounding New York’s plans for a Sept. 11 memorial also kept the city’s trauma in the public eye — in contrast to the relative ease and consensus that marked the design competition for the Pentagon Memorial.
“The public never got to own the design process at the Pentagon Memorial,” said Young, who served as a juror for the New York memorial. “It was slam, bam, done. Whereas in New York, there were 8 million pairs of eyes on every twist and turn, and that debate kept the memories fresh.”
New Yorkers stayed involved in the arguments about the design of their memorial in part because New York has a noisy, tabloid personality and in part because the stories of the World Trade Center victims proved so enduringly powerful.
The victims came from more than 80 countries; their sheer numbers — more than 2,700 people perished — as well as the diversity of the group made it easier for Americans to connect with their stories. In contrast, “there seems to be an indifference to the Pentagon victims, almost a lack of sympathy,” Young said, in good part because many Americans assume, incorrectly, that most who died at the Pentagon were service members — in a sense, combatants rather than innocents.
In fact, the Pentagon victims were hardly all federal bureaucrats or military members. They, too, are a widely varied group — from 22 states and two foreign countries, though the majority were from the Washington area — yet you would never know that from the Sept. 11 stories told in movies, books and TV shows.
Memorials themselves play a part in shaping public memories of events. Maya Lin’s black gash on the Mall tells a different story about the Vietnam War than the traditional, triumphant National World War II Memorial tells about that chapter of our history. New York’s 9/11 Memorial gives a face to the victims — literally. The museum will have a “Wall of Faces” with portraits of every victim and audio recordings of their names. And the memorial will include not only those who died in Manhattan, but those who were killed at the Pentagon and near Shanksville, Pa., because this is a national monument. The Pentagon Memorial, in contrast, is quieter; the names are engraved on thin benches suspended over small pools of running water, but you have to look for them.
It is possible to recognize the dominance of the New York story without resenting it. The powerful emphasis on that city’s experience “has been apparent really from the beginning, and that’s as it should be,” said Ron Carlee, Arlington’s county manager a decade ago and now chief operating officer at the International City/County Management Association. “The magnitude of what happened in New York remains completely unfathomable.”
If Carlee’s is no household name, that too reflects the way New York’s brassy, bold personality has colored the history of 9/11. Rudy Giuliani instantly became “America’s mayor” after the attacks, and that popularity helped launch his presidential campaign. Carlee won accolades within his profession for his leadership in the aftermath of the Pentagon tragedy, but his name is not well-known, even in Northern Virginia.
Carlee decided many years ago never to compare how New York and Arlington responded to the attacks. The scale of the two experiences was just too different. That lesson was driven home to him a year after 9/11, he said, when he realized at a memorial service for fallen firefighters “that the number of firefighters lost in New York was equal to our entire department in Arlington.”
He said it’s important to remember that the New York attack ravaged a neighborhood, whereas the Virginia assault hit what the military calls the “Pentagon reservation,” a place very much apart from its surroundings. But Newman and others who have written about the Pentagon’s 9/11 say that separation has ensured that the attack there will recede into relative obscurity.
“There really is no video footage of anything at the Pentagon that is nearly as dramatic as what happened in New York,” Newman said. “There’s nothing close to the drama of people jumping out of the 95th floor, so the fact that terrorists almost knocked out the center of power of the most important military in the world is getting lost.”
Those who have sought to tell the story of the Pentagon attack have found little interest either in the publishing world or among consumers. Newman’s book got a lot of media attention in the Washington market, but hardly any anywhere else.
“New York is the media capital of the world,” Newman said. “New York has the attitude that it’s the center of the world. Compare that to the Pentagon, where their instinct is to stay out of the limelight.”
Jim Laychak, whose brother Dave, a civilian Army employee, was killed at the Pentagon, has seen firsthand how difficult it is to bring the tales of heroism and tragedy to a public that has moved on to other concerns. As president of the Pentagon Memorial Fund, Laychak has struggled with the fact that it “has always been a challenge to get the stories out there.” But he argues that whether it’s the D.C. schoolchildren and teachers who were aboard Flight 77 as part of a National Geographic-sponsored trip to California, or the Falkenbergs, the University Park family who were also on the plane, the tragedies at the Pentagon are enduring and affecting stories.
Will future generations get to hear those stories? At the Pentagon Memorial, where commercial jets soar overhead on their ascent from Reagan National Airport nearly every minute, it’s impossible not to be transported back to those gut-wrenching days 10 autumns ago. But decades from now, what will draw people to this simple garden of stones and memories? Instead, the story that future generations of Americans will learn about 9/11 will be part of the majesty and tumult of New York.
Marc Fisher is a senior editor at The Washington Post.
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