9/11 anniversary: Obama's day, from mourning to hope
It was a day to mourn the memory of things past while hoping that resilience will create a brighter future as President Obama visited all three sites scarred the deadliest act of terrorism in the nation’s history on the 10th anniversary of 9/11.
From his morning visit to the site of the World Trade Center to the fields at Shanksville, Pa., to an afternoon trip to the Pentagon, Obama and his wife, Michelle, trod a solemn path of commemoration in honor of the nearly 3,000 people killed on Sept. 11, 2001.
Sunday night, Obama was expected to pivot to the future as he attends the Concert for Hope at the Kennedy Center, where he will give his only formal comments on the day. The concert is produced by the Washington National Cathedral, which moved it to Kennedy Center after a crane used to repair the earthquake-damaged cathedral collapsed last week.
If past comments are any indication, Obama will praise Americans for persevering in the face of the pain of the terror attacks and hope that fortitude will help signal a rebirth in dealing with more recent problems such as a weak economy and political disunity. It is that ability to recover that offers the possibility of renewal.
“Ten years later, I'd say America came through this thing in a way that was consistent with our character,” Obama told NBC News in a videotaped segment broadcast throughout the day as the president traveled from site to site. “We've made mistakes. Some things haven't happened as quickly as they needed to. But overall, we took the fight to Al Qaeda, we preserved our values, we preserved our character.”
In his last stop before the speech, Obama went to the Pentagon to place a wreath at the memorial for the 184 people killed when American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the south side of the building a decade ago. It was the second ceremony at the home of U.S. military power.
The president was escorted to the memorial by Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Both spoke at the earlier ceremony of the sacrifice made by the more than 2 million Americans who have served in the military over the last decade, and the more than 6,000 who have died in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.
After walking slowly through a line of uniformed men and women from all branches of the military, who stood at attention as the group walked by, Obama placed a large wreath of white flowers at the entrance to the memorial. He paused for a few moments, bowing his head in front of the wreath as a military band struck up "Amazing Grace." Behind the president a giant American flag hung over the south side of the building fluttered in the breeze.
Obama and the first lady then turned to greet a group of relatives of victims of the Pentagon bombing, who reached out to shake the president’s hand. It was a scene repeated throughout the day as the president and his wife met with families at each site. It was Obama as consoler-in-chief, a role he has done before, most recently after the shootings in Tucson, Ariz.
Each of the terror scenes carried its own moments of poignancy. In New York, Obama touched the names of the dead carved in metal at the memorial pool. He read from Psalm 46, which invokes a God who consoles. “God is our refuge and strength,” Obama said, “a very present help in trouble. Therefore, we will not fear.”
But New York was also a moment of unity as Obama was joined by former President George W. Bush, who reached the height of his popularity when the hijacked planes hit the World Trade Center. The presidents and their wives toured the North Memorial Pool before meeting with families of those killed. Bush nodded in agreement with Obama after his reading.
It was United Airlines Flight 93 that captured much of the nation’s imagination. Passengers and crew fought with hijackers, forcing the plane into a crash landing in a field near Shanksvile instead of its presumed targets in the nation’s capital.
There the solemn mood eased as the president drew cheers and chants of “U-S-A” at the site. Obama and the first lady lingered, posing for photos and smiles and quiet laughs caught by television.
In the NBC interview, Obama recalled hearing of the attacks and going home to rock his baby daughter, Sasha. “Our first reaction was, and continues to be, just heartbreak for the families involved,” Obama said. “The other thing that we all remember is how America came together.”
-- Noam N. Levey and Michael Muskal
Photo: First lady Michelle Obama and President Obama embrace family members of victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks at the September 11 Memorial at the site of the World Trade Center. Credit: David Handschuh / Pool