The Stiff Upper Lip Trembles Slightly
At the Pentagon, 9/11 Memorial Mixes Civilian Emotion and Military Reserve

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 13, 2008

In one direction you can see the three tapering spires of the Air Force Memorial, and in another, the wall of the Pentagon where Islamic radicals crashed American Airlines Flight 77 on Sept. 11, 2001, killing 184 people. And as you sit on the wing-shaped benches of the new Pentagon Memorial, the flight path for Reagan National Airport is so close you feel as if you could touch an airplane's underbelly.

The memorial, which opened to the public Thursday evening, surrounds the visitor with aeronautical references, reminders of how easily great human accomplishments -- slipping the surly bonds of earth -- can become new avenues for destruction. For a moment, some of the old fears may rush back: I will never get on an airplane again, many of us thought after the attacks. But then the memory of that fear fades, just as the fear itself faded over the past seven years. The memorial opens at a time when the meaning of what happened on 9/11 is still unknown: Did it change everything, as some have said, or nothing at all, as our daily lives so often suggest?

Given that it has been only seven years and the events of Sept. 11 have been politicized in the interim, it was a smart choice to keep the design of the new memorial focused squarely on the victims. The memorial's designers, Julie Beckman and Keith Kaseman, have created one bench for each person who died in the attack. Underneath there is a rectangular, lighted pool of water. The name of each victim is inscribed on the edge of the bench, facing the Pentagon for those who died in the building, and facing away for those died aboard the plane. The benches are set in a field of gravel, with maple trees that are spindly now but will offer shade in the future.

The bench design is elegant, a long swooping cantilever of steel, inlaid with panels of granite. Collectively, they seem to have snapped up out of the ground with some kind of primal energy, recalling ancient poetic associations between the earth and both death and rebirth. The water underneath is a mistake, however. Even on opening night, the small pools were filling with gravel, and the reflection from the lighting makes the names of the victims almost impossible to read at night. But water has become the great fetish of every memorial design today, and there was probably no eliminating it.

The designers have borrowed heavily from the memorial to the 1995 domestic terrorism bombing in Oklahoma City, where 168 empty chairs were used to recall those who died. But while the Oklahoma chairs were primarily symbolic -- "like an empty chair at a dinner table," said designer Hans Butzer -- the benches at the Pentagon Memorial don't recall a larger sense of family. They can easily seat two or three people, however: They are user-friendly for real families.

There is something touching in this practicality. Memorials aren't just about symbolism. They also present pragmatic challenges. How to accommodate the grief-stricken? If you are going to pay homage to each individual who died, how do you organize those references? What do you do if the victims are both civilian and military, as was the case on 9/11? So the benches are arrayed in ranks, like soldiers, and you can slouch on them. And they aren't just seating -- they situate the survivors, who have become (in a sociological sense) a whole new class of people with legal and emotional claims on how we deal with tragedy.

The designers have chosen age as their organizing principle, which is both emotionally compelling and democratic. The benches are laid out on lines that correspond to birth year, beginning with Dana Falkenberg, who was 3 years old, and ending with John Yamnicky, who was 71. The natural predisposition to protect the very young and the elderly makes this layout emotionally powerful. The swelling of the two-acre park to accommodate the many victims who were in the prime of life gives another emotional jolt. And except for the orientation of the benches, the victims are not categorized. It is both ordered and random at the same time.

The Pentagon has begun to refer to the benches with their little pools of water as "Memorial Units." It is a strange and typically military use of language, and reveals some of the tensions inherent in this, the first major memorial to the tragedy completed since 9/11. The military tends to remember collectively, honoring all the dead for their service to the country. If particular names are used (as on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the Mall), they tend to be used small. In part this is a practical decision -- major military monuments honor thousands of people -- but it also reflects the military's necessary disassociation from the excesses of individual grief.

The cult of memorialization that has gripped our country in recent decades is almost always focused on the individual. This can trip up designers. One team of finalists for a memorial at the World Trade Center proposed a cluttered program of glass columns, one for each of the nearly 3,000 victims. The emotionality of individual memorialization isn't just a direct challenge to the stiff upper lip of military culture, which isn't immune to grief, it can also be self-defeating.

And so the new memorial presents a very strange meeting ground. The kind of grief that is bewildering to the civilian world -- which responds with profusions of teddy bears, candles and poems pinned to the fences outside charred ruins -- has met the more stoic face of the Pentagon. If the grief outside ever prevailed inside the building, we would be defenseless. If the mentality that leads to phrases like "Memorial Units" prevailed throughout the society, we would we automatons, or Spartans, or fascists. A necessary line between two different responses to death has been drawn.

Maintaining that line is the primary challenge presented by terrorism, which doesn't discriminate between military and civilian death, which takes soldiers in the prime of life and 3-year-old girls en route to a vacation in Australia. Terrorism requires the military to fight without ever quite being at war, and it requires civilians to grow up and accept the fact there is always danger and death in the world. It is the ultimate challenge that most democracies will face: to think beyond absolutes without succumbing to either fear or complacency.

The design of a perimeter wall along one side of the new memorial may underscore the idea, rising from a mere three inches high where it intersects the age line of Falkenberg to 71 inches where it intersects the line for Yamnicky. One hopes it traces the growth of wisdom.

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