Sept. 11 memorials evoke tears, anger
President urges Americans to ‘rekindle the spirit of unity’ nation felt nine years ago
NEW YORK – Nine years after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Americans came together Saturday to honor the victims with now-familiar rites of remembrance and prayer.
But this Sept. 11 was dramatically different from those in the past. For the first time, in lower Manhattan where the Twin Towers fell, the hallowed ground that long served to unify the nation began to divide it instead.
Angry protests erupted over a proposed Islamic center and mosque two blocks from ground zero. No violence or arrests were reported, but the bitter passions over religious tolerance and cultural diversity threatened to overshadow an anniversary that previously was marked by mourning and sober reflection.
With national polls showing anti-Muslim sentiment on the rise, President Barack Obama appealed for Americans to “rekindle the spirit of unity” that swept the stunned nation after nearly 3,000 people died in the horrors of that sun-dappled morning nine years ago.
“This is a time of difficulty for our country,” Obama said in his weekly radio address. “And it is often in such moments that some try to stoke bitterness – to divide us based on our differences, to blind us to what we have in common.”
The worst fears for the day did not materialize. An anti-Muslim pastor from a tiny church in Florida said he had “totally canceled” his plan to burn copies of the Quran, but not before sparking outrage around the globe and anti-U.S. protests in several Muslim countries, including Afghanistan.
As in previous years, solemn ceremonies were held at the places where the four jetliners hijacked by al-Qaida crashed.
Obama placed a wreath at the Pentagon, Vice President Joe Biden spoke at the former World Trade Center site, and first lady Michelle Obama and former first lady Laura Bush appeared at a 9/11 national park under construction in Shanksville, Pa.
But this Sept. 11, along with weeping and prayers, there was discord and anger.
Police estimated that more than 2,000 protesters converged near the proposed 13-story Islamic cultural center. The site is now an abandoned coat factory.
Shouting matches and angry placards filled the air as people argued over whether the planned house of worship would represent a triumph of religious freedom or an affront to those who perished and their families. Police used barricades to keep rival groups apart, but there were scattered scuffles.
On a clear, crisp morning, much like that awful day nine years ago, bagpipes skirled, drums beat a mournful tattoo and the familiar ritual began beside the gaping hole where the Twin Towers long had stood – chiming bells, moments of silence and the slow reading aloud of each victim’s name, 2,752 names in all.
A huge U.S. flag found in the rubble and later stitched back together was unfurled on the stage. Police and firefighters in dress uniforms stood at attention while men and women clutched one another, tears streaming down their faces. For many families, it was a reunion of shared grief and searing loss.
None of the speakers mentioned the planned mosque, but the troublesome issue formed an undercurrent through conversations in the crowd.
“This was really the first time I thought of not coming because of all the controversy around this Muslim place,” said Marty Lesser, 59, who fled down 30 flights of stairs to escape one of the burning towers. “I come here to get quiet, and this year the noise is everywhere.”
Rosaria Reneo, whose 25-year-old sister, Daniela Notaro, died in the collapsing towers, said she is bothered by the cranes and heavy equipment that will construct a Sept. 11 memorial at the site by next year, as well as the planned Islamic center.
“A lot of people were not found, including my sister,” she said. “It’s also really a cemetery.”
Ground zero was not visible from two blocks away, where the Islamic center would rise. Standing on the corner, Matt Sky, a 26-year-old Web designer, waved a placard reading, “Honor 911 Honor the Freedom of Religion.” He was immediately challenged by a slew of angry opponents.
“This is not a religious issue,” said Rose Van Guilder, 62. “It’s an issue of sensitivity.”
“If you had a child who was raped, would you want the family of the people who did it to move right next to you?” demanded Christopher Olivaria, a sanitation manager.
“The people who want this center didn’t do anything wrong,” Sky responded. “They just want to practice their religion as they always have in this area.”
As the crowd grew and the argument heated up, police moved the group behind a metal barricade to get them off the street. The shouting soon calmed down, but other debates and quarrels erupted nearby.
The family of Brooke Jackman, who was 23 when she died on 9/11, ignored the shouting as well as a man who railed against Muslims in front of TV cameras. As in past years, they attended the ceremony, waited for Brooke’s name to be read aloud, then left flowers and photographs behind.
“This is a day of remembrance, nothing more,” said Brooke’s sister, Erin. “We’re doing what we always do on this day.”
Two other women, a widow and the sister of a 9/11 victim, didn’t argue. But they didn’t agree either on whether the proposed Islamic center should be built. The widow called it a “typical Muslim victory” monument for lives lost and families shattered. But the other woman quietly cited the right to worship anywhere in America. They declined to give their names.
By midafternoon, the area began to resemble a raucous street fair of competing religious, social and civic groups, all vying for attention.
One group passed out leaflets protesting homosexuality. Another held up huge anti-abortion signs. Down the street, women in long flowered dresses and bonnets handed out Mennonite literature. An old man with a long gray beard played “Amazing Grace” on a flute.
Pro-mosque groups gathered by City Hall, and activists waved signs reading “Down with Anti-Muslim Bigotry” and “Christians for Religious Freedom in America.” Leaders from more than 50 groups took turns at the megaphone, including ministers, rabbis, imams, union leaders and others.
One speaker, from a mosque in Albany, N.Y., complained that Muslim Americans are treated “like the boogeyman, marginalized, demonized.”
Several blocks away, however, opponents toted signs that read, “It stops here” and “Never forgive, never forget, no WTC mosque.” Some chanted “USA” and “No mosque here.”
One opponent held a sign reading, “The Quran is a lie and hate.” When a passer-by challenged him, another woman responded sharply. “Not every Muslim is a terrorist, but every terrorist happens to be Muslim,” she said.
“Haven’t you heard of Timothy McVeigh?” an onlooker shouted back.
McVeigh, a white militia movement sympathizer, was convicted and later executed for carrying out the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, which killed 168 people. It was the deadliest act of terrorism on American soil before 9/11.