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Pentagon's 9/11 Memorial Puzzle

Public Access to Solemn Site Balanced Against Security Needs

Seven years after the tragic events of 9/11, the memorial park, featuring 184 light benches for the 184 victims that lost their life at the Pentagon, will be dedicated.
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By Nick Miroff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 20, 2008

When the nation's first major 9/11 memorial is dedicated on the grounds of the Pentagon's western side this September, it will change the iconic building into something it was not intended to be: a tourist destination.

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Since the day the symbol of the country's military might was attacked nearly seven years ago, a great deal of effort has gone into further limiting public access to the site. It has been wrapped in barricades, elaborate security systems and signs prohibiting photography.

But just as the grief and sympathy that came after the Sept. 11 attacks eroded whatever psychological barrier existed between the public and the Pentagon, the memorial attempts to make that relationship a lasting physical reality. The Pentagon Memorial will allow the camera-wielding public free access 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Visitors will find a parklike open space that is intricately beautiful, meticulously crafted and almost entirely at odds with the monolith that serves as its backdrop.

By almost any measure, it is not a good location for a major attraction. The area is tangled with traffic during commuter hours. The public will be barred from parking near the site. And wayward tourists might find themselves in awkward encounters with officers of the Pentagon Force Protection Agency (PFPA), the hyper-vigilant security service that polices the Pentagon Reservation.

In short, said PFPA Director Steven E. Calvery, the Pentagon "was not designed to be a welcoming and nice place to visit, like the Mall."

But unlike the Washington region's other monuments and tourist attractions, the location for the Pentagon Memorial was not originally selected by a board of directors or an arts commission. It was picked by the five terrorists who hijacked a Boeing 757 on Sept. 11, 2001, and plowed it into the building at 530 mph. The family members of the 184 victims killed in the attack, and the many others who carry the scars of that day, wanted the memorial to be at the exact site of the crash. Their wishes prevailed.

Construction of the $32 million project, financed entirely by private donations, is moving into its final stages. When the site is dedicated Sept. 11 and opened to the public the next day, visitors will see a highly aesthetic space that offers a stark contrast to the building whose 125 fallen workers it honors, along with the 59 victims on the plane.

The site is intended to elicit thoughtful reflection and contemplation, encouraging visitors to explore, to feel the gravel crunching under their feet and to listen to the trickling water in the light-filled reflecting pools beneath each of the 184 elegant, curving benchlike memorials honoring those who died in the attack.

"This site holds a special level of intensity," said architect Keith Kaseman, who designed the memorial with his partner and spouse, Julie Beckman. "You can't get the whole picture of what happened until you come here."

Visitors could come away with more than a meditation on the past. Because the memorial is next to the building, it also might invite people to think about the Pentagon, and the Department of Defense employees and contractors who work inside. Whether it humanizes their work or raises critical questions about what they do there, the site will offer a new vantage point from which to contemplate the attack, the building or what happens behind its walls.

Beckman and Kaseman said the memorial will not tell visitors what to feel about Sept. 11, the Pentagon or anything else. "This is a place where people are invited to sit and think but one that does not tell them what to think," Kaseman said. "The 9/11 attack was an attack on free thought, so our response should be on the opposite end of the spectrum in honoring and respecting the people who died."

With permanent memorials in Lower Manhattan and Shanksville, Pa., several years from completion, security officials are bracing for 1 million to 2 million visitors a year to the Pentagon site.


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