On 9/11 Anniversary, Enduring Grief and Sharp Division
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NEW YORK – On a clear and cool Saturday, with bells ringing, bagpipes playing and a chorus singing, thousands gathered near ground zero to observe the ninth anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks as a storm of controversy swirled over the proposed construction nearby of a mosque and Islamic center and the aftermath of a Florida preacher's threat to burn the Koran.
Solemnity and visible sorrow prevailed at the morning ceremonies at Zuccotti Park, near the site where 2,752 people were killed when two planes flew into the World Trade Center. As expected, around 1,000 or so activists rallied later to support the proposed mosque project in a former Burlington clothing factory on Park Place, two blocks north of ground zero. Carrying signs saying, "The attack on Islam is racism," mosque backers gathered near City Hall and planned to walk closer to ground zero. A smaller group of mosque opponents rallied nearby, chanting, "USA, USA."
Elizabeth Meehan, 51, from Saratoga, N.Y., came by bus from her home 180 miles away. "I'm really fearful of all the hate that's going on in our country," she told The Associated Press. "People of one brand of Christianity are coming out against other faiths, and I find that so sad."
The anger and threats, fear and enmity that have characterized previous protests over the mosque project seemed mostly absent on Saturday afternoon, but the religious and political divisions in the city and the nation remained and undermined a hallowed day and the serenity of the ceremonies earlier in the morning.
Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, opening the commemoration, spoke from a makeshift stage, saying, "No other public tragedy has cut our city so deeply. No other place is as filled with our compassion, our love and our solidarity." He spoke just as a bell rang at 8:45 to mark the moment when the first plane hijacked by Islamic terrorists struck the north tower of the World Trade Center. Underscoring the somber tone of the day, relatives of the nearly 3,000 victims and others closely involved with the tragedy read the names of the dead, one by one, in a tearful litany that has become a hallmark of the annual ritual.
The memorial at ground zero came a day after President Barack Obama called for tolerance and better relations between Muslims and non-Muslims at home and abroad. "We have to make sure that we don't start turning on each other,'' he said. "And I will do everything that I can, as long as I am president of the United States, to remind the American people that we are one nation, under God." On a visit to the Pentagon to commemorate the attack that killed 184 people there, the president said, "We are not and never will be at war with Islam." Michelle Obama and her predecessor, Laura Bush, joined the ceremony in Shanksville, Pa., where 40 passengers and crew of United Flight 93 died when their hijacked plane crashed in a field. As an American, Mrs. Obama said, she was "filled with a sense of awe of the heroism of my fellow citizens." And Mrs. Bush, whose husband was president when the attacks occurred, recalled that on 9/11 "we saw the worst of our enemies and the best of our nation."
Obama's statements and the 9/11 memorials capped a period of anxiety and violence at home and abroad. Plans to build an Islamic center near ground zero have ignited protests for and against in the streets of Lower Manhattan and set off a fierce national debate that has touched most Americans, the midterm campaigns, and drawn in even the president. Most polls say Americans and New Yorkers do not want the Islamic center and mosque built so close to ground zero, but only a few question the Muslim community's right to build it there. The debate has unleashed a wave of anti-Muslim sentiment across the country and, in the view of U.S. leaders, endangered the nation's troops in Islamic nations like Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Fanning the flames, an obscure fundamentalist pastor from Florida threatened to burn some 200 copies of the Koran, Islam's holy book, on the anniversary of 9/11. The pastor, Terry Jones, a firebrand who leads a Pentecostal-style 50-member church called the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Fla., commandeered the air waves, drew mass media attention and, in short order, became the top story across the land.
In recent days Jones said he would call off the bonfire of the Koran if the proposed Islamic center near ground zero, often referred to as the "ground zero mosque," were moved away from the site. A media hound, Jones surrounded himself with cameras and reporters, stepped up to the microphone on the grassy grounds of his church and made one threat after another, culminating on Friday afternoon with his announcement that he would come to New York to witness the 9/11 ceremonies and to meet with the head of the mosque project, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf. Though the Imam did not agree to meet with him, Jones flew to La Guardia Airport, arriving Friday night, dressed in a Harley-Davidson T-shirt, jeans and boots and surrounded by police officers. On Saturday morning, he showed up at NBC's "Today" show and declared he had canceled the book burning because he had accomplished his mission to reveal that Islam had dangerous elements.
"Not today, not ever,'' he said of the book burning. "We are not going to go back and do it."
Jones and his Dove Center, which has been described as a cult more than a church, had drawn international and domestic condemnation – from the Pentagon to the Vatican, from his fellow clergymen to political figures like Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck. He was under pressure from the White House, the State Department, the military and the Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who called him briefly to persuade him to call off his threat.
In the end, he relented, but the damage was done. Muslim extremists seized on Jones's threats to counter with threats of their own. Violent protests continued on Saturday in Afghanistan, where stores and police checkpoints were set on fire. At least 11 people were injured on Friday in protests in Badakhshan province. In Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim country, the cleric Rusli Hasbi said that whether or not Jones burns the Koran, he already has "hurt the heart of the Muslim world."
But at ground zero on a crisp Saturday morning, amid the construction cranes and the stark structures going up to eventually replace the lost towers, Alyson Low, a librarian in Fayetteville, Ark., and the sister of a flight attendant who died in the attack, wanted no part of the controversy. "I'm tired of talking about everything else, tired of politics," she told The New York Times. "Today is about loss."