President Barack 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 terror 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 Sept. 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.
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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 perpetuators 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. “For the past year, this administration has failed to provide sufficient answers, fully comply with (congressional) subpoenas and make available relevant individuals to provide testimony.”
Attorney General Eric Holder 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.
Saying that Obama had “made a compelling case for military action against the Assad regime” in his prime-time speech Tuesday evening, Reid called on Congress to follow the president’s lead.
“Diplomacy is always the first-choice solution,” Reid said. “President Obama has asked us to temporarily suspend consideration of a Syria (war) resolution to allow the administration time to explore every diplomatic avenue.”
But Congress, he added, “should not take the threat of military action off the table.”
Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov planned to meet Thursday in Geneva to try to hash out a possible U.N. plan for seizing control of and potentially destroying Syria’s large stockpile of chemical weapons.
Obama appeared to make an indirect reference to the high-stakes chess game over Syria in his remarks at the Pentagon.
“Let us have the wisdom to know that while force is at times necessary, force alone cannot build the world we seek,” he said.
Hagel also made an apparent reference to Syria in a brief speech later in the day to Pentagon employees.
“If there’s one clear message we can take away (from 9/11), it is that we must be vigilant, we must always stay ahead of emerging challenges and threats, and we must take action – but wise action, wise action – when necessary to defend our interests and our country,” Hagel 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.”
While Democratic and Republican politicians played tit for tat, an anti-immigration group used the Sept. 11 anniversary to lambast lawmakers from both parties for failing to implement a biometric visa-tracking system.
Noting that “several of the (9/11) hijackers had overstayed their visas,” the Washington-based Federation for American Immigration Reform said Congress and Obama have ignored a key clause in the Patriot Act, the anti-terror law enacted six weeks after Sept. 11. The clause would require most visa holders to undergo biometric identification, such as fingerprints and retina scans.
“Twelve years later, the government could not be farther from implementing the biometric entry-exit system, and Congress refuses to act,” the group said.
For all the sparring, some lawmakers tried to steer clear of partisanship for at least a day.
“Like all Americans, I will never forget where I was 12 years ago and the way our nation responded in the face of tragedy,” said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. “On that day, no matter our differences, our region, our race, religion or political party, we were all one thing – Americans.”
“Though the attacks were horrific, they also helped to remind us of what makes our country great and give us hope that our best days are still to come,” said Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C.
“The world has changed drastically since that day, but our country remains stronger than ever,” said Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska.
Soldiers at Arlington Cemetery on 9/11