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Pentagon's 'Freedom Walk' Is a March Along America's Divide

The rally marking 9/11 also will honor troops, a linkage that some find unsettling or worse.

September 11, 2005|Johanna Neuman | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — 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."

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