Obama: Unity legacy of 9/11

2012-09-12 08:01

New York - President Barack Obama lauded American unity on Tuesday as the country marked a sombre but low-key anniversary of the 9/11 attacks under crisp blue skies poignantly reminiscent of 11 years ago.

"The true legacy of 9/11 will not be one of fear or hate or division," Obama said at the Pentagon near Washington. "It will be a safer world, a stronger nation, and a people more united than ever before."

Highlighting what he said were the "crippling" blows dealt against al-Qaeda and the killing last year of Osama bin Laden, Obama said the United States is "even stronger".

But in Egypt and Libya, angry mobs attacked US diplomatic missions on the sensitive anniversary over a film deemed an offense to Islam, killing a US official at the consulate in Libya's Benghazi city. Thousands protested at the embassy in Cairo, replacing the US flag with an Islamic one.

As every year, relatives of the nearly 3 000 people killed when al-Qaeda hijackers slammed airliners into New York's World Trade Centre gathered at Ground Zero to read out the names of the dead.

The flawless blue sky was identical to the one 11 years ago when millions of people watched from the streets and live on television as the aircraft flew straight into the upper floors of the Twin Towers, causing them to collapse.

Less intense

However, emotions are distinctly cooler as America finally tries to draw a line under an event that sparked the decade of Washington's controversial and expensive war on terror.

No politicians joined in the Ground Zero reading and security was less intense, in contrast to the 10th anniversary last year when Obama headed a long list of VIPs at the ceremony.

June Pollicino, who lost her husband on 9/11, said: "I feel much more relaxed. After the ninth anniversary, those next days it started building up to the 10th anniversary. This year it's different in that regard. It's another anniversary we can celebrate in a discreet way."

In total, 2 983 names were read out at Ground Zero - the 11 September 2001 victims and those killed in the precursor to those attacks, the 1993 car bombing of the World Trade Centre.

The reading paused for silence at the exact time each of the four aircraft turned into fireballs - two smashing into the Twin Towers, one into the Pentagon and another into a Pennsylvania field.

Another two moments of silence were observed at the times the towers collapsed, accounting for the vast majority of 9/11's dead.

Biden empathises

Obama, who earlier stood for a moment's silence on the White House South Lawn, had no political events planned on Tuesday and his re-election campaign planned to halt television advertising for the day.

On leaving the Pentagon, he and First Lady Michelle Obama made an unscheduled stop at Arlington National Cemetery, walking among the gleaming white crosses and laying special coins of tribute at the graves.

Vice President Joe Biden travelled to Shanksville, Pennsylvania, where United Flight 93 crashed after passengers attacked the hijackers and prevented them from hitting another presumed high-profile target, such as the US Capitol building.

"What they did for this country is still etched in the minds of not only you, but millions of Americans, forever," Biden said, recalling the painful loss of his own first wife and infant daughter in a 1972 car crash.

"For I know you see your wife every time you see her smile on your child's face," he said. "You remember your daughter every time you hear her laughter coming from her brother's lips."

In a rare show of bipartisan unity, more than 275 lawmakers from the US House and Senate gathered at the Capitol steps to sing God Bless America, much as they did in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.

Differences put aside

White House hopeful Mitt Romney recalled how he drove past the smouldering Pentagon on that day, and was stunned by "the smell of war" that had reached American shores.

He also said he was putting aside his differences with Obama for a day to hail the men and women who protect America, and those who died.

The passage of time and more pressing worries about the moribund US economy have distracted public attention from the tragedy of 9/11, after the huge media coverage of the 10th anniversary last year.

Helping to heal the wounds are the new memorial at Ground Zero and the near completion of the main skyscraper at the World Trade Centre, now officially the tallest building in New York.

The memorial's long delayed museum now also appears set to be opened after Mayor Michael Bloomberg and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo reached an accord late Monday over funding.

Confirmation by bin Laden's successor Ayman al-Zawahiri that his influential deputy, Abu Yayha al-Libi, died in a drone strike in Pakistan in June underlines the success of the US military's relentless killing of al-Qaeda figures from the air.

However, the Taliban movement used the anniversary to scorn any notion that they are on the ropes, saying they had nothing to do with 9/11 and that the United States faces "utter defeat in Afghanistan".

Most foreign troops are scheduled to withdraw by the end of 2014, handing over responsibility for combat to Western-backed Afghan government forces.