The Pentagon’s Strangely Festive Ceremony

The Pentagon 9/11 ceremony this morning feels less like a memorial than a celebration. At the World Trade Center, they’re reading out the names of all 2,800 dead. In Shanksville, Penn., they’re tolling a bell for each Flight 93 victim. But here they run a slide show of workers rebuilding the Pentagon, capped by a triumphal shot of a hard hat snapping together an office cubicle. The crowd of 12,000 cheers.

What is missing today? The dead. The absence of mourning is disorienting. The Pentagon’s victims seem an afterthought, listed in small type in the program, and only briefly invoked by President Bush and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in their speeches. For most of the hour-long ceremony, 9/11 hardly seems to matter at all. Instead, it is really a tribute to the Phoenix Project, the massive effort that erased the damage from Flight 77 and rebuilt the Pentagon better-than-new in less than a year.

The motto of the Phoenix Project was Todd Beamer’s phrase “Let’s roll.” A huge sign over the dais reads “Let’s roll.” Thousands of Phoenix Project workers in attendance wear hard hats emblazoned with “Let’s roll” stickers. Even the Navy Chaplain urges, “Let us roll” in his benediction. Today, in short, is all about rolling, about moving forward and rebuilding and winning the war, which leaves little energy to recall the grimness and despair of that day. Even on this anniversary, the Pentagon has better things to do than mourn.

Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Richard Myers wins the biggest cheer of the morning when he hails “the hard-hat patriots of the Phoenix Project.” The hard-hat patriots in my section of the bleachers could hardly be less solemn. Their good cheer is eerie. A few seats down, a woman in a denim vest decorated with red, white, and blue stars leads a few friends in the Wave, then urges everyone to start “happy dancing.” The man behind me, who owns the company that supplied the 4,900 tons of reinforced steel needed for reconstruction, has brought his wife and three sons to the festivities. He and the man in front of me, a Phoenix Project vet (whose hard hat sports Tiger Woods’ autograph!), get giddy when Lee Evey walks by. Evey, the reconstruction project manager, is a rock star today. My neighbor lines up to have a photo taken with Evey. Other folks ask him for his autograph.

For months I’ve been trying to understand why the Pentagon attack has been a footnote to the World Trade Center and even Flight 93. Of course the scale of death and destruction at the Twin Towers dwarfed the Pentagon’s loss, and of course Flight 93 offers an inspiring story of resistance. But still, the Pentagon is the pre-eminent symbol of American power, and the assault murdered nearly 200 people. You’d think it would rate more than an aside. At this morning’s ceremony, I think I finally get why it doesn’t.

The Pentagon event feels like someone else’s family reunion. In New York, victims’ family members, journalists, and politicians have done everything they could to make the Twin Towers a national tragedy, not simply a local one. They have actively sought to share their sorrow with the nation, and Americans have welcomed that. Flight 93, too, has become a national epic.

But the Pentagon is a culture of privacy (and secrecy). It didn’t want public mourning. It didn’t welcome the public to today’s ceremony: This was “Pentagon family” only, with soldiers barring the uninvited. The Pentagon is its own world, and outsiders are outsiders. Though I’ve never lived in New York, I have been to the World Trade Center half-a-dozen times. I have lived in Washington for 32 years, but I had never been to the Pentagon till I picked up my press badge yesterday. The building exists for its corps of workers—tens of thousands of them—but it intentionally ignores everyone else. National security requires that; the proud, wary military culture ensures that.

The Twin Towers soared over Manhattan, visible to all. But the Pentagon is the most invisible large building you’ve ever seen. The building is isolated, standing in acres of parking lots. You would never stumble across it, never accidentally visit it. The Pentagon repels visitors. Barriers, Hummers, wire fences, soldiers with machine guns surround it. When I jaywalked in a Pentagon parking lot yesterday, a corporal gunned his Hummer toward me, side arm at the ready, and ordered me back to the sidewalk.

The Pentagon is far from Washington physically. The smoke and debris from the World Trade Center choked all of Lower Manhattan. The cloud from the Pentagon fire blotched one small corner of the Washington sky.

And it is far from Washington psychologically. The military is suspicious of the dominant cultures of downtown—politics, law, journalism—and the feeling is mutual. Journalists, who have had so much access to the World Trade Center, haven’t breached the Pentagon. Why didn’t the Washington Post turn the Pentagon into a crusade, as the New York Times did the World Trade Center? Perhaps because the Post and the Pentagon lived in different worlds, worlds that scarcely ever touched.

That “Pentagon family” doesn’t share its sorrows. That’s not military style. New York is an open, confessional, emotional city. The Pentagon is the opposite. Soldiers don’t dwell on their losses in public—their lives and their work would be impossible if they did. There are too many losses.

New York has an open wound in Lower Manhattan. But the Pentagon would not show that weakness, certainly would not commemorate it a year later. This is a building that symbolizes American victory, so victory it must show. No scar remains. They rebuilt the structure perfectly, as though 9/11 never happened. Speaker after speaker today says we are not forgetting, but the building belies that. The building—with its new, clean, blank walls—has already forgotten, or rather, the building is too busy to remember. Behind those walls, they are rolling.