Jittery US unites in grief during 9/11 anniversary

United States President Barack Obama said he remembered September 11 2001 as a day when a tried and tested US “came together” in the face of disaster.

“For me, like for most of us, our first reaction was and continues to be just heartbreak for the families involved,” Obama told NBC television in an interview broadcast on Sunday in which he recalled his reaction to learning of the attacks.

“The other thing that we all remember is how America came together,” he said in the interview taped on Saturday, hours ahead of Sunday’s memorial services at Ground Zero.

“And so 10 years later, I’d say America came through this thing in a way that was consistent with our character,” the president said.

“We made mistakes. Some things haven’t happened as quickly as they needed to, but overall we took the fight to al-Qaeda,” he added.

“We preserved our values. We preserved our character,” he said in the interview at the White House.

On Sunday the president was in New York City, accompanied by First Lady Michelle Obama, for ceremonies marking the 10th anniversary of the al-Qaeda attacks on the US.

Also at those observances was former president George W. Bush, who was in office at the time of the attacks and former first lady Laura Bush.

Jittery US
A jittery US came together in grief on Sunday’s 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks which killed almost 3 000 people and plunged it into an era of war and bitter internal division.

With federal officials warning of a new terrorism scare, security in major cities was extraordinarily tight and Obama has called for a “heightened state of vigilance and preparedness”.

Heavily armed police squads and bomb-sniffing dogs were deployed across New York while motorists in some neighbourhoods were forced to go through checkpoints.

As with every year since the horrific events of September 11 2001, remembrance ceremonies will centre on Ground Zero, where 2 753 of the day’s 2 977 victims died in the inferno of the collapsing skyscrapers.

Unlike previous years, the ritual of reading the names of the dead will take place against a backdrop of the gleaming, three-quarter-built 1 World Trade Centre tower, rather than a chaotic-looking construction site.

Sunday will also see the dedication of a simple but moving monument consisting of massive fountains sunk into the footprints of the former towers with the names of the dead written in bronze around the edges.

Terrorism won’t win
Even as US intelligence agencies chased down what officials said was a credible but unconfirmed threat of an al-Qaeda attack around 9/11, Obama assured terrorism would never win.

“We will protect the country we love and pass it safer, stronger and more prosperous to the next generation,” he said. “Today, America is strong and al-Qaeda is on the path to defeat.”

Obama and Bush will attend the ceremony together for the first time, along with victims’ family members, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his predecessor Rudolph Giuliani — who led the city 10 years ago.

The 9/11 remembrances unite Americans like no other event. According to a poll last week, 97% of people remember where they were when they heard the news, on a par with John F. Kennedy’s assassination.

The country was thrilled — with young people spilling onto the streets in Washington and New York — at the news in May that US Navy Seals had flown into Pakistan and shot dead al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden.

Yet while al-Qaeda is severely weakened and New York is recovering, the anniversary still finds a nation struggling to overcome the longer-term impacts of the last decade.

Separate commemorations
In Afghanistan, where US forces will also hold ceremonies on Sunday at the Bagram air base with a similar event at the US embassy in Kabul, troops are stuck in a seemingly unwinnable war against a Taliban guerrilla movement few Americans understand.

“Some back home ask, why are we here? It has been a long fight and people are tired,” US Ambassador Ryan Crocker said at a ceremony at the US embassy in Kabul. “The reason is simple: al-Qaeda is not here in Afghanistan and that’s because we are.”

Earlier on Sunday, the US Army said 50 American soldiers were among 89 people wounded when a suicide bomber driving a truck attacked an advance Nato combat post in central Afghanistan on Saturday.

The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack in which two Afghans were killed.

Though US troops have a reduced presence in Iraq, their occupation of the country, years of vicious inter-Iraqi violence and a host of torture scandals have bled the US economy and sullied Washington’s image abroad.

As unemployment and next year’s presidential election become the focus for most Americans, those already distant wars — launched in the wake of 9/11 — can seem a world away.

Leading politicians may make patriotism part of every stump speech but the loss of more than 6 200 US soldiers in wars launched by Bush, the hundreds of slain allied troops and the deaths of tens of thousands of Afghan, Pakistani and Iraqi civilians rarely get a mention.

International recognition
In this time of rancour, Sunday is at least a chance for brief reflection and ceremonies were being held around the world to honour those killed on 9/11.

In the first of the global memorials, the US rugby team attended an emotional service in New Zealand hours ahead of their opening Rugby World Cup match against Ireland.

At the ceremony, David Huebner, the US ambassador to New Zealand, said 9/11 was a day “to commemorate the triumph of the human spirit”, a rare day “that galvanised the collective hearts and minds of humanity”.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said that al-Qaeda had been weakened since the attacks, which had also killed dozens of Britons.

“Al-Qaeda is now weaker than at any time in the decade since 9/11 and political progress through peaceful protest in the Middle East and North Africa has shown it to be increasingly irrelevant to the future.”

The Taliban hit back on Saturday saying the post-9/11 invasion of Afghanistan by the US and its allies “will remain a permanent stigma on the face of Western democracy”.

Pope Benedict XVI called on world leaders to resist the “temptation to hate” as he remembered the victims of the 9/11 attacks at a mass in Ancona, Italy.

In a letter to New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan, the leader of the world’s Roman Catholics said the tragedy of the attacks was all the worse because those behind it claimed to be acting in the name of God.

In addition to the carefully stage-managed Ground Zero ceremony, Obama was to pay respects at the Pentagon and in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, where one of the four hijacked planes fell into a field, apparently after passengers overpowered the assailants.

On Saturday, a national memorial to the 40 passengers and crew of United Airlines Flight 93 who died in the Pennsylvania crash was inaugurated in a solemn dedication.

Bush praised the heroism of the passengers who battled to overcome the hijackers, saying, “One of the lessons of 9/11 is that evil is real and so is courage.” — AFP

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Sebastian Smith
Sebastian Smith
AFP White House correspondent. Previously Rio, NYC, Moscow, Tbilisi, London, Paris -- and a couple years at sea.

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