Sunday, September 11, 2011

Jittery US unites in grief 10 years after 9/11

NEW YORK (AFP) – Americans united in grief on Sunday’s 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks which killed almost 3,000 people and plunged the country into an era of war and bitter internal division.
President Barack Obama and his predecessor George W. Bush stood together at Ground Zero in New York for the main ceremony at the site of the destroyed Twin Towers. Obama was then due to pay homage at 9/11′s other crash sites in Pennsylvania and at the Pentagon.
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.”
The ceremony began in New York Sunday with a procession of bagpipers and singing of the national anthem.
Heavily armed police squads and bomb-sniffing dogs have deployed across the city, while motorists in some neighborhoods were forced to go through checkpoints.
The weather over New York was mostly clear early Sunday, recalling the brilliant sky 10 years ago to horrific surprise attack on the World Trade Center, where 2,753 of the day’s 2,977 victims died in the inferno of the collapsing skyscrapers.
As every year since September 11, 2001, the main ceremonies were in New York.
But unlike previous years, the ritual of reading the names of the dead took place against a backdrop of the gleaming, three-quarter-built 1 World Trade Center 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.
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 were attending 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 almost no other event. According to a poll last week, 97 percent 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.
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.”
Early 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.
And 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.
In this time of rancor, Sunday is at least a chance for brief reflection, and ceremonies were being held around the world to honor 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 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 galvanized the collective hearts and minds of humanity”.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Al-Qaeda had been weakened since the attacks, which 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.”
But the Taliban hit back Saturday saying the post-9/11 invasion of Afghanistan by the United States 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.