WASHINGTON – Streaming in through the green blast-resistant windows, the rays of sunlight looked yellow in the small hall dominated by two black slabs of marble.
Etched in the slabs are the names of the 184 men and women who lost their lives when American Airlines flight 77 smashed into the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001. Above the names, the words “America’s Heroes” are carved.
The memorial lies at the entrance to a 100-seat chapel, built at the point of impact of the plane crash and dedicated in November 2002.
It is a non-denominational chapel maintained by the Pentagon Chaplain’s Office, for use by employees. It is not open to regular tourists. There is a daily Catholic Mass. Muslims gather daily for prayers at the chapel, and an imam leads a prayer service every Friday. Behind curtains, an ark housing a Torah is kept, for use for the weekly Jewish service.
There are no religious symbols inside the chapel, where a pentagon-shaped glass window hangs at the spot where an altar is usually located, under the words, “United in Memory, September 11, 2001.”
Designed by a military veteran and built of faceted Dalle de Verre glass that resembles stained glass, the window contains 184 slabs of glass assembled in two red rings encircling an American flag, an olive branch and an image of the Pentagon.
The chapel and memorial outside, which overlooks the outdoor Pentagon Memorial that sprawls across 7,800 square meters, are part of efforts not only to remember the 9/11 victims but also to promote understanding and friendship among different faiths.
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About three weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks I flew to this US capital from Honolulu as a Jefferson Fellow of the East-West Center. Across the Potomac in Arlington, Virginia, there was still a large gash through the Pentagon, as deep and ugly as the wound that cut through the heart of America.
Flight 77 crashed through three of the five rings of the Pentagon. A guide told me last Friday that in the face of horrific death and destruction, Pentagon employees resolved to recover quickly. For two months, the crash site was cordoned off as a crime scene. But Pentagon employees – there are about 23,000 of them now – were back at work soon after, working without elevators or escalators and with intermittent power supply.
They wanted to make sure, the guide said, that by the first anniversary of 9/11, the Pentagon would be fully rebuilt. Renovation was completed by July 2002.
Alongside rebuilding the crash site, they had to undertake the more challenging task of rebuilding lives, understanding the reasons for the attack, and dispelling the fear and hatred fomented by 9/11.
In 2001 I flew here as a wounded superpower prepared to attack Afghanistan. No one questioned the propriety of attacking a sovereign country. US journalists were Americans first before journalists. An editor of a major US network told our group of Jefferson Fellows the exact time of the start of the attack, which she said they were not broadcasting so as not to alert the enemy.
Retaliation for 9/11 took many forms. In this capital back then, all the restaurants offering food from the lands of the terrorists were empty. Because almost all the hijackers were “sleepers,” even law-abiding Arabs (and Hindus and Sikhs!) who had lived here peacefully for a long time suddenly found themselves the objects of suspicion, fear and hatred.
An atrocity had been committed, and someone had to pay for it. The direct perpetrators of 9/11 were dead, but the reason invoked for the attack was very much alive. America looked around for an enemy, and in those early days after 9/11, it saw Islam.
A decade and two messy wars later, Americans have learned the mistakes in their responses. And the strength of this society is that it tries to correct its mistakes. It is a continuing struggle.
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Remembering is also a continuing activity. Americans have a long memory, and they like building memorials to honor courage, sacrifice and exemplary achievement. Maybe they remember the past as a guide for the present and to build a better future.
At the memorial outside the Pentagon chapel, a black slab displays the Purple Heart. The 184 victims of 9/11 are considered casualties of war, and Americans pay proper tribute to their war dead.
This capital is dotted with memorials, all well maintained, all brightly lit up at night. These days they are sprucing up the newest memorial, created in honor of Martin Luther King, to be unveiled on Aug. 28.
A “Quilts Corridor” leading to the Pentagon Memorial Chapel displays 21 out of some 100 quilts sent from all over the country and the world, expressing sorrow and sympathy for the 9/11 attacks. Several quilts bear children’s artwork. One shows the flags of all the countries, including the Philippines, which lost citizens in the attacks on the Twin Towers in New York.
In the landscaped open courtyard at the center of the Pentagon there is another memorial of sorts. On the rooftop of a small food court is the statue of an owl. A guide explained that when the structure was built several decades ago, the courtyard was so full of pigeons many Pentagon employees ended up with pigeon poop after munching on a hotdog at the kiosk.
Unwilling to hold a pigeon shoot, Pentagon officials searched for a solution. Someone mentioned that owls preyed on pigeons. The owls were brought in, and sure enough, the pigeons disappeared. Jubilant employees built the statue in honor of their savior.
The guide, who once served in Afghanistan, said a Soviet missile used to be aimed directly at the kiosk. The Soviets, she said, apparently monitored many people coming in and going out of the structure and believed many important meetings took place there.
I don’t know if that story is true. Russia is not the friendliest of America’s allies, but it’s no longer an enemy in a cold war. The Pentagon kiosk is itself a memorial of sorts, a reminder that today’s enemies can be tomorrow’s friends.