Pentagon’s ‘Freedom Walk’ Is a March Along America’s Divide

Times Staff Writer

On the fourth anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, in which nearly 3,000 people died, the nation’s commemorations will be as varied as its geography.

In Oregon, a 9/11 Memorial Tapestry will be displayed at the Corvallis Arts Center, and a song inspired by the images of that day will be performed. A national grass-roots nonprofit called One Day’s Pay urges people to observe the day with acts of charity. New York City plans a ceremony where the victims’ brothers and sisters, along with other relatives, will read the names of those who died, pausing four times for a moment of silence -- to mark the impact of each hijacked jet into the north and south towers of the World Trade Center and when each tower fell.

In the nation’s capital, a government agency that has often been the target of protests is sponsoring a march of its own.

The Pentagon’s “America Supports You Freedom Walk” today is intended to honor the U.S. military and the victims of the terrorist attacks, but critics say the administration is using the occasion to try to stiffen American resolve in Iraq and to counter a major war protest in Washington two weeks later.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld announced the Pentagon march last month as an occasion “to remember the victims of Sept. 11, 2001; to honor U.S. troops and veterans; and to highlight the value of freedom.”


The 1.7-mile walk from the Pentagon to the National Mall -- passing such landmarks as Arlington National Cemetery and the Lincoln Memorial -- will be capped by a concert featuring country star Clint Black, who in 2003 recorded the pro-military song “I Raq and I Roll.”

The march will also showcase the drive to build a memorial to the 184 victims of the American Airlines Flight 77 crash into the Pentagon.

Only those who had registered by Friday will be allowed to march -- the Pentagon expects as many as 10,000 people -- and officials are blocking access to the route with 4-foot-high snow fencing.

Critics say the event is a calculated Pentagon scheme to brand the Sept. 11 attacks as the precursor to a necessary war.

“This is a desperate propaganda ploy, an attempt to link Sept. 11 to the war in Iraq,” Operation Ceasefire coordinator Adam Eidinger said. His group is co-sponsoring the Sept. 24 war protest in Washington, which organizers say could attract 100,000 participants.

Operation Ceasefire is not planning to protest the Freedom Walk -- the group will instead spend the day canvassing neighborhoods with pamphlets urging a pullout from Iraq -- but Eidinger said “a handful” of activists had registered for the walk and planned to write antiwar messages in fast-drying ink on T-shirts distributed by Pentagon sponsors.

Some families of those who died in the terrorist attacks were outraged that the Pentagon paired the anniversary with a tribute to the military.

“How about telling Mr. Rumsfeld to leave the memories of Sept. 11 victims to the families?” said Monica Gabrielle, who lost her husband in the World Trade Center. “Stop connecting 9/11 and Iraq. The only real connection is that these innocent men and women were sent to Iraq on a folly based on lies using the victims of 9/11 -- including my husband -- as an excuse. Instead of a Freedom Walk, how about a Truth Walk? I think it’s about time.”

March sponsors and supporters see nothing wrong -- and everything right --with walking to support U.S. troops on a day that marks a deadly terrorist attack on American soil.

“Some of the critics are seeing a connection where none is intended,” said Victoria Clarke, a former Pentagon spokeswoman who is taking her children to the march. “People are perfectly within their rights to oppose the policy of war, but this is about supporting the troops.”

Even some who oppose the war in Iraq praise the Freedom Walk as an opportunity to support the troops, not necessarily their mission in Iraq.

Jimmy Massey, co-founder of Iraq Veterans Against the War, said his organization “supports that kind of thing.”

He called Sept. 11 “a major tragedy that marked a different type of era within America” and added: “We need to show soldiers coming home that we support them, whether from a right-wing agenda or a left-wing agenda.”

A veteran of 12 years in the Marine Corps, Massey added: “Any morale is good.”

Pentagon officials were furious at the criticism.

“Those critics weren’t sitting here in this building when I was and 184 of my colleagues [and passengers] were killed,” said spokesman Bryan Whitman. “I can appreciate that Americans all across country will decide what is the most appropriate way to remember this day. We feel this is the appropriate and fitting way to remember those who died right here in this building and also to bring awareness to the future site of the memorial.”

The Pentagon Memorial will have 184 benches, each lighted from below and dedicated to a victim, arranged according to age, from 3-year-old Dana Falkenberg to 71-year-old John D. Yamnicky. The benches honoring those who died as passengers on the plane will face one way; those who died on the ground, the other.

“It’s a powerful way of representing the tragedy, to make people think but not tell them what to think,” said Pentagon Memorial Fund President Jim Laychak.

Laychak, whose brother David was among those killed at the Pentagon, hopes for a memorial groundbreaking in fall 2006. The project has raised about half of the $18 million needed to build the memorial, and he said the families wanted to raise an additional $10 million for an endowment to maintain the site.

Asked if he was bothered by the Pentagon’s coupling of the attack remembrance and the pro-troops rally, Laychak was diplomatic.

“When you’re trying to raise $18 million, you need all the help you can get,” he said, especially considering that some fundraising events had been postponed because of the Hurricane Katrina relief effort.

Before the walk, families of Sept. 11 victims will place a wreath on a five-sided marker at Arlington National Cemetery, a symbolic grave for victims, including five whose remains were never identified. Rumsfeld will attend the wreath-laying ceremony, and he and other administration officials will participate in the walk, Whitman said.

“This is an opportunity for employees of the Pentagon and the community affected to recommit ourselves to the work ahead and to not forget our men and women in uniform out there on front lines, defending our freedoms, our way of life,” Whitman said. “That’s all very real to us, because it’s our colleagues who were killed in the attack.”

Others suggest that the Freedom Walk controversy emphasizes a national fissure over the war on terrorism.

“Historically, it was much easier for the nation to come together and agree on meaning of the dead,” said Gary Laderman, a professor of religious history at Emory University in Atlanta. “That’s changed since the 1960s and Vietnam.”

Laderman, whose most recent book, “Rest in Peace,” traces American funeral rituals, contrasted the country’s attitude now toward Sept. 11 with the passions that stirred four years after Pearl Harbor.

“Deaths and more politically charged tragedies no longer seem to generate a unified vision of how we should understand their meanings, and how best to memorialize them,” he said.

“Since the ‘60s, there’s been a greater diversity of voices about how to set the frame around the dead, and it is often conflicting. That’s here to stay.”