A woman holding flowers and a picture of a loved one killed in the attacks… (Lucas Jackson / Getty Images )
Reporting from New York and Washington —
Nine years after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Americans came together Saturday to honor the victims with now-familiar rites of remembrance and prayer.
But this Sept. 11 was dramatically different from those in the past. For the first time, in Lower Manhattan where the twin towers fell, the ground that had long served to unify the nation began to divide it instead.
Angry protests erupted over a proposed Islamic center and mosque two blocks from the former World Trade Center site. No violence or arrests were reported, but the bitter passions over religious tolerance and cultural diversity threatened to overshadow an anniversary that previously was marked chiefly by mourning and sober reflection.
With national polls showing anti-Muslim sentiment on the rise, President Obama appealed for Americans to "rekindle the spirit of unity" that swept the stunned nation after nearly 3,000 people died in the horrors of that sun-dappled morning nine years ago.
"This is a time of difficulty for our country," Obama said in his weekly radio address. "And it is often in such moments that some try to stoke bitterness — to divide us based on our differences, to blind us to what we have in common."
The worst fears for the day did not materialize. An anti-Muslim pastor from a tiny church in Florida said he had "totally cancelled" his plan to burn copies of the Koran, but not before sparking outrage around the globe and anti-U.S. protests in several Muslim countries, including Afghanistan.
As in previous years, solemn ceremonies were held at the places where the four jetliners hijacked by Al Qaeda militants crashed.
Obama placed a wreath at the Pentagon, Vice President Joe Biden spoke at the former World Trade Center site, and First Lady Michelle Obama and former First Lady Laura Bush appeared at a Sept. 11 national park under construction in Shanksville, Pa.
But along with weeping and prayers, there was discord.
Police estimated that more than 2,000 protesters converged near the abandoned coat factory where the 13-story Islamic cultural center is proposed.
Shouting matches and angry placards filled the air as people argued over whether the planned house of worship would represent a triumph of religious freedom or an affront to those who perished and their families. Police used barricades to keep rival groups apart, but there were scattered scuffles.
On a clear, crisp morning, much like the one nine years ago, bagpipes skirled, drums beat a mournful tattoo and the familiar ritual began beside the gaping hole where the twin towers long had stood — chiming bells, moments of silence, and the slow reading aloud of each victim's name, 2,752 in all.
A huge U.S. flag found in the rubble and stitched back together was unfurled on the stage. Police and firefighters in dress uniforms stood at attention while men and women clutched one another, tears streaming down their faces. For many families, it was a reunion of shared grief and searing loss.
None of the speakers mentioned the planned mosque, but the troublesome issue formed an undercurrent through conversations in the crowd.
"This was really the first time I thought of not coming because of all the controversy around this Muslim place," said Marty Lesser, 59, who fled down 30 flights of stairs to escape one of the burning towers. "I come here to get quiet, and this year the noise is everywhere."
Rosaria Reneo, whose 25-year-old sister, Daniela Notaro, died in the collapsing towers, said she was bothered by the cranes and heavy equipment that will construct a Sept. 11 memorial at the site by next year, as well as the planned Islamic center nearby.
"A lot of people were not found, including my sister," she said. "It's also really a cemetery."
The site of the towers was not visible from two blocks away, where the Islamic center would rise. Standing on the corner, Matt Sky, a 26-year-old Web designer, waved a placard reading, "Honor 9-11, honor the freedom of religion." He was immediately challenged by a slew of angry opponents.
"This is not a religious issue," said Rose Van Guilder, 62. "It's an issue of sensitivity."
"If you had a child who was raped, would you want the family of the people who did it to move right next to you?" demanded Christopher Olivaria, a sanitation manager.
"The people who want this center didn't do anything wrong," Sky responded. "They just want to practice their religion as they always have in this area."
As the crowd grew, and the argument heated up, police moved the group behind a metal barricade to get them off the street. The shouting soon calmed down, but other debates and quarrels erupted nearby.
The family of Brooke Jackman, who was 23 when she died on Sept. 11, ignored the quarreling as well as a man who railed against Muslims in front of TV cameras. As in past years, the family attended the ceremony, waited for Jackman's name to be read aloud, then left flowers and photographs behind.