WASHINGTON – President Obama and other national leaders tried Wednesday to put aside partisan differences and commemorate victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, but tensions over Syria, Libya and other hotspots reminded Americans how that day sparked a new and troubled era that is still playing out in American politics.
On the tragedy’s 12th anniversary, Obama, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, House Speaker John Boehner and others noted that the terrorist attacks have taken almost 10,000 American lives – the 2,996 who died in New York, outside Washington and in Pennsylvania, plus thousands more who have fallen in the wars it spawned in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“Today, we remember not only those who died that September day,” Obama said as he laid a wreath at the 9/11 memorial at the Pentagon in Arlington, Va., “we pay solemn tribute to more than 6,700 patriots who have given their full measure since – military and civilians.”
Before crossing the Potomac River for the ceremony, the president and first lady Michelle Obama held hands on the White House lawn as a bell tolled at 8:46 a.m., the moment 12 years earlier when the first hijacked plane struck the World Trade Center in New York. An American flag flew at half-staff above the South Portico of the executive mansion.
Despite the paeans to national unity, Boehner of Ohio, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and other Republicans criticized Obama for the failure to find and punish the perpetrators of the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya.
“It is disgraceful that one year later, even though a number of terrorists who participated in this attack have been identified, not a single one has been brought to justice,” Boehner said.
Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. did not respond to the barb, but he did include the names of the four Americans who died in the Benghazi attacks in a sweeping homage to terrorism’s victims.
“We pay tribute to each of them, and to many others who have given their lives in the service of this country since 9/11; from the soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who have fought on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, to patriots like Glen Doherty, Tyrone Woods, Sean Smith and Ambassador Chris Stevens, who were taken from us just one year ago in Libya,” Holder said.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., laid down his own partisan marker during a Senate speech in which he segued from remembering the Sept. 11, 2001, victims to challenging members of Congress to back Obama’s plan to punish Syrian President Bashar Assad for his alleged use of chemical weapons with a possible military strike if a new diplomatic push fails.
“Even as we pay tribute to America’s tradition of freedom for every citizen, across the globe an evil dictator denies his citizens not only their right to liberty, but also their right to live,” Reid said.
Some lawmakers lamented the prolonged period of bitter partisanship that has followed the early sense of shared purpose over the 2001 attacks.
“Americans came together as one in the face of something incomprehensible,” said Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla. “We were there for each other in ways big and small, helping one another get through what was a very trying time. To truly honor those we remember today, let’s recommit ourselves to embodying that unified spirit.”
In New York, on the memorial plaza overlooking two reflecting pools in the imprint of the twin towers, relatives recited the names of the nearly 3,000 people who died when hijacked jets crashed into the towers, the Pentagon and in a field near Shanksville, Pa.
Carol Eckna recalled the contagious laugh of her son, Paul Robert Eckna, who was killed in the north tower.
“Just yesterday, you were 28,” she said. “Today, you are 40. You are forever young. Dad and I are proud to be your parents.”
The anniversary arrived amid changes at the Flight 93 National Memorial in Shanksville, where construction started Tuesday on a new visitor center. On Wednesday, the families of the passengers and crew aboard United Flight 93 recalled their loved ones as heroes for their unselfish and quick actions. The plane was hijacked with the likely goal of crashing it into the White House or Capitol, but passengers tried to overwhelm the attackers and the plane crashed into the field. All aboard died.
“In a period of 22 minutes, our loved ones made history,” said Gordon Felt, president of the Families of Flight 93, whose brother, Edward, was a passenger.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.