WASHINGTON — Ten years after the nation was unified in horror, President Barack Obama honored the legacy of Sept. 11 victims on Sunday by personally tracing the trail of the terrorist attacks, proudly declaring that the decade since has proven “America does not give in to fear.”
At ground zero, Obama stood in solidarity with President George W. Bush right where hijacked airliners smashed into the twin World Trade Center towers in 2001. He touched the names of those etched into a bronze memorial amid the rush of its striking waterfalls.
In a field in western Pennsylvania, Obama strolled along a marbled Wall of Names that stands in tribute to the 40 people who crashed in Shanksville after fighting back against the terrorists. Obama seemed to shake the hand of every person he could reach.
In the rebuilt Pentagon just outside the nation’s capital, the symbol of U.S. military might attacked by terrorists that day, Obama placed a wreath at a memorial where each of 184 victims is remembered. A brass quartet played a soulful rendition of “Amazing Grace.”
And finally, back in Washington, after a day he chose to mark mainly by quiet presence, the president spoke of the pride of a nation.
“These past 10 years have shown that America does not give in to fear,” he said. Nor to suspicion or mistrust or sacrificed values, he said.
“Our people still work in skyscrapers,” Obama said during an evening ceremony centered on American hope and resilience.
“Our stadiums are still filled with fans, and our parks full of children playing ball. … This land pulses with the optimism of those who set out for distant shores, and the courage of those who died for human freedom.”
This was not a day centered on politics.
Rancor fell away, as it always tends to do on Sept. 11. Yet this anniversary felt different.
Obama’s principal role was simply to be there – to be there at every site – as the nation remembered the nearly 3,000 lives lost and ponder all that has transpired.
On a brilliant, sun-splashed morning, Obama and his wife, Michelle, first walked with Bush and his wife, Laura, to the new North Memorial Pool at New York’s ground zero. All four touched the names etched in bronze and silently bowed their heads. The former president wore his anguish clearly.
They then turned to dispense greetings and hugs to family members of those who died.
Obama read Psalm 46, which he chose because it speaks of perseverance.
“God is our refuge and strength,” Obama said, “a very present help in trouble. Therefore, we will not fear.”
Bush gave Obama a quick nod of solidarity after the president’s reading. It was the first time the two presidents had seen each other since their Rose Garden appearance after the Haiti earthquake in January 2010.
A little boy, sitting on his dad’s shoulders with a pacifier in his mouth, watched the solemn ceremony and took off his baseball cap in respect.
Obama heard family members of the victims read off their lost loved ones’ names and bring their memories to life.
The presidents and their wives stood behind bulletproof glass during the ceremony, an indication of the tight security surrounding the day’s events. In Washington, Obama’s chief counterterrorism adviser convened a meeting in the Situation Room to review security threats.
Obama’s stop in Shanksville drew spontaneous applause and chants of “USA” from those at the memorial site. Obama and his wife lingered at the site to pose for photos with visitors, greet children and share some laughs.
His mood seemed to brighten the longer he went.
“Thanks for getting bin Laden,” one man called out, referring to the Sept. 11 mastermind tracked down and killed in Pakistan earlier this year.
The Obamas walked to a boulder that marks the actual crash site and stood quietly together in a field of wildflowers for a time.
“I think it’s just important that the president shows his support for the families that lost loved ones,” said Jaleel Dyson, an 18-year-old from Washington who attends college in the area and came to pay tribute to the dead.
At the Pentagon, the Obamas took their time mingling with memorial visitors and victims’ family members, some of them wearing ribbons and T-shirts bearing the names and photos of their loved ones. Here, too, amid the sadness, there were smiles and laughter.
Obama, who was an unknown state senator from Illinois when the hijackers struck, has called on Americans to remember and serve – and to come together.
“Ten years later, I’d say America came through this thing in a way that was consistent with our character,” he told NBC News. “We’ve made mistakes. Some things haven’t happened as quickly as they needed to. But overall, we took the fight to al-Qaida, we preserved our values, we preserved our character.”
In the broadcast interview, Obama recalled going home after the attacks and rocking his baby daughter, Sasha. “Our first reaction was, and continues to be, just heartbreak for the families involved. The other thing that we all remember is how America came together.”
Capping a journey of heavy emotion, Obama said in the nighttime event in Washington that the legacy of 9/11 will be that the country took an enormous blow and emerged stronger. He said the Americans will remember that when they visit the memorials for decades to come.
“They will know that nothing can break the will of a truly United States of America,” he said. “They will remember that we have overcome slavery and Civil War; we’ve overcome bread lines and fascism, recession and riots, Communism and, yes, terrorism.”