The WaPo Sunday Outlook section had a piece examining the reasons the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon doesn’t get the same commemorative attention as the attack on the World Trade Center. Many plausible reasons are cited — the smaller number of deaths, the lack of video footage of the hijacked plane’s impact, the isolation of the Pentagon from the surrounding neighborhood. But the piece only tangentially touches what I think is another important reason:
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.
But it doesn’t really matter whether “most of those who died at the Pentagon were service members” or not — rather, the Pentagon, as the headquarters of our military establishment, is a legitimate military target. There are many ways of defining terrorism, but it seems to me the simplest is “any act committed by irregular fighters that, if committed by a soldier, would be a war crime.” Targeting the Pentagon for attack cannot, by definition, be a war crime — though the means of that attack can be, like hijacking a civilian airliner carrying three-year-old Dana Falkenberg and using it as a guided missile.
This is obviously not to say that we not honor those killed in the attack on this military engagement, just as we honor our dead from Pearl Harbor and the Alamo and the Chosin Reservoir and Gettysburg and Fallujah and Saratoga. But the contrast between the large number of deaths in a civilian office building vs. a smaller number of deaths at a military office building makes the greater emphasis on the former more understandable.