The annual rituals in New York, at the Pentagon, and at the site of Flight 93’s crash in Pennsylvania will have an especially deep resonance as the country reflects on a decade of fear at home and war abroad, all triggered by the surprise attacks of September 11, 2001 in which nearly 3,000 people died.
At the centre of today’s events will be the reading of victims’ names at Ground Zero, attended by victims’ family members, Obama, Bush, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and the governors of New York and New Jersey.
But this is a truly national occasion in a country where, according to a poll last week, 97 per cent of people remember where they were when they heard the news, putting 9/11 on a par with John F. Kennedy’s assassination.
At Ground Zero, the sombre litany will take place against a backdrop of impressive progress in rebuilding the World Trade Centre, which collapsed in a fiery, toxic heap after being struck by two hijacked airliners.
Today will also see the opening of a national 9/11 memorial, consisting of two huge square fountains dug into the footprints of the old Twin Towers.
Behind the memorial, the centerpiece of a massive new office complex, One World Trade Centre, is steadily rising toward the planned 104 floors that will make it the country’s tallest building.
That rebirth of lower Manhattan, where the vast hole at Ground Zero for years symbolised a broader lack of closure, will lend a note of optimism to proceedings.
“New York has come roaring back faster than anyone thought possible,” Bloomberg said Tuesday, calling lower Manhattan’s revival “one of the greatest comeback stories in American history.”
Americans will pause at the decade mark with some satisfaction too that the mastermind of 9/11, Al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden, was killed in Pakistan in a dramatic raid by US Navy SEALs four months ago.
But while Al-Qaeda is severely weakened, New York is recovering, and the attacks are fading into history, the anniversary will also find a nation still reeling from the longer-term impacts of the last decade.
In Afghanistan, troops remain bogged down in a seemingly unwinnable war against a Taliban enemy few Americans understand.
And although US troops have a much reduced presence in Iraq, their invasion and occupation of the country, unleashing vicious inter-Iraqi violence and marred by the Abu Ghraib torture scandal, has bled the weakened US economy and undermined Washington’s credibility abroad.
With Americans now focused on the twin perils of economic decline and Republican-Democrat gridlock in Congress, 9/11 and terrorism seem increasingly distant.
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, barely get a mention in the political discourse 14 months ahead of the presidential election.
But today at least will mark a carefully stage-managed and solemn moment of unity in the increasingly polarized nation.
In addition to visiting New York, Obama will 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.
The president will also take part in an interfaith concert at Washington’s National Cathedral featuring mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves, country singer Alan Jackson, and R&B soul diva Patti LaBelle.
The 9/11 attacks left 2,977 people dead. The vast majority of those killed, 2,753, were in New York, while 184 people died at the Pentagon and another 40 at Shanksville. Those figures exclude the 19 hijackers.
While a vast new security apparatus within the United States has managed to prevent any major terrorist attack since on American soil, the country is again on alert during the anniversary.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said there was “no specific” threat but “we remain at a heightened state of vigilance.”
A poll by Pew last week found general satisfaction with US internal security – exposed as woefully inadequate prior to 9/11 – but 35 per cent of people questioned said luck was the reason America had so far been spared another attack.
Bloomberg said Tuesday that companies locating in the new World Trade Center knew “that the area would remain a terrorist target, but they refused to live in fear and they knew that New York has the finest police department in the world.” – AFP