IN the past, the anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks was marked by sombre reflection and a call to unity, devoid of politics. No more.
This year’s commemoration of the attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people in New York, Washington and Shanksville, Pennsylvania, promises to be the most political and contentious ever, because of a proposed Islamic centre and mosque near Ground Zero, and a Florida pastor’s plan to burn the Koran – and the debate those issues have engendered over religious freedom.
As in other years, official ceremonies are planned at the three locations the terrorists struck. President Barack Obama will attend a commemoration at the Pentagon, while vice-president Joe Biden will attend the ceremony at Ground Zero. First lady Michelle Obama and former first lady Laura Bush will travel to Shanksville to observe the anniversary there.
Obama told a news conference that today will be a day to commemorate not only heartbreak, but also the country’s “enduring values and resilient spirit”.
He said a plan by Terry Jones, the pastor of a small, independent church in Gainesville, Florida, to mark 9/11 by burning copies of the Koran must be taken seriously because it could cause “profound damage” to US troops and interests around the world.
“You don’t play games with that,” Obama said.
Jones said he cancelled those plans under pressure from the White House but now is reconsidering.
In Afghanistan, at least 11 people were injured yesterday in scattered protests over Jones’s plan. No large-scale demonstrations were reported elsewhere.
The largest commemoration will be the New York ceremony at a park near Ground Zero, where 2,752 people were killed when Muslim extremists flew planes into the twin towers of the World Trade Center.
The ceremony there will pause four times: twice to mark the times each plane hit the towers, and twice to observe the times the towers fell. Houses of worship in the city have been asked to toll their bells at 8.46am, when the first plane struck the north tower.
But this time, along with the formal ceremonies, activists are organising a pair of rallies – one against the planned Islamic centre, one supporting it – to follow the official ceremony.
The anti-mosque rally has bitterly divided family members of those who died in the attacks.
Sally Regenhard, who lost her firefighter son, Christian, in the attacks, said she would attend the city ceremony in the morning where the names of the dead are read aloud. Then, she planned to head over to the anti-mosque rally.
“The purpose is to speak out and express our feelings that this mosque, the location of it, is a grievous offence to the sensitivity of 9/11 families. There’s nothing political about people who want to speak out against something they think is so wrong, so hurtful and so devastating.”
But Donna Marsh O’Connor, whose pregnant daughter, Vanessa, was killed in the attacks, supports the mosque. She said she strongly opposes the planned rally and the political motivations behind it.
“It’s more of the same hate mongering and fear mongering that’s been going on for years. People have a right to free speech. But if they’re talking about sensitivities to 9/11 families, why are they rallying and doing events on a day we should spend thinking about those we lost?”
The rally is being hosted by Pamela Geller, a conservative blogger who has actively opposed the planned Islamic centre since the project’s inception.
Geert Wilders, a Dutch politician who advocates banning the Koran and taxing Muslim women who wear head scarves, planned to address the crowd, as do a handful of Republican congressional candidates who have made opposition to the mosque a centrepiece of their campaigns.
Former 9/11 Commission chairman Lee Hamilton said the US relationship with the Islamic world “is one of the really great foreign policy challenges of the next decades”.
“We’re not going to solve it in a year or two or five or even 10 years. The kind of debates we’re having today in New York City and Florida and other places reflects that. How do we get right, how do we line up this relationship better than we do,” Hamilton said.
Picture: Protesters beat an effigy of the Rev. Terry Jones before setting it on fire during a rally to condemn the intention of his small American church to burn copies of the Koran, in Multan, Pakistan.
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