Thousands gathered Tuesday in New York, suburban Washington and rural Pennsylvania to mark the 11th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, but at the somber day's biggest venue, Ground Zero in lower Manhattan, this year's observance was missing a key feature from years past: politicians' voices.
In a reminder of the global consequences of the attacks, commemorations will also be held abroad. At the Kaia airport in the Afghan capital Kabul, soldiers with the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force prayed during a memorial ceremony for the Sept. 11 victims.
The United States and its allies launched the invasion of Afghanistan to oust al-Qaida and its Taliban protectors in retaliation for the 2001 attacks. Nearly eleven years later, troops are still fighting there in what has become America's longest war.
President Barack Obama has pledged to end the main U.S. combat role in Afghanistan by the end of 2014, but current plans call for some thousands of U.S. troops to remain long after that to train Afghans and hunt terrorists. Since 2001, more than 2,000 American troops have been killed in Afghanistan.
In search of 'more intimate' commemorations
In previous years, politicians including presidents, state governors and New York City mayors have participated in the reading of the names, or have read from the Bible or recited passages from literature, at commemoration ceremonies in the United States.
This year, only the families of the more than 2,750 who were killed when militant Islamist hijackers crashed two jetliners into the World Trade Center's Twin Towers, causing their collapse, appeared on the podium to read their names.
To Charles G. Wolf, it's a fitting transition.
"We've gone past that deep, collective public grief," says Wolf, whose wife, Katherine, was killed at the trade center. "And the fact that the politicians will not be involved, to me, makes it more intimate, for the families. ... That's the way that it can be now."
Politicians still attended, but under event rules set down in July by the National September 11 Memorial and Museum, chaired by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, none was to speak or participate in the reading of names.
The point, memorial President Joe Daniels said, was "honoring the victims and their families in a way free of politics" in an election year.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano will attend the New York ceremony this year.
But others said keeping politicians off the rostrum smacked of ... politics.
The move came amid friction between the memorial foundation and the governors of New York and New Jersey over financing for the museum -- friction that abruptly subsided Monday, when Bloomberg and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced an agreement that paves the way for finishing the $700 million project "as soon as practicable."
Before the deal, Cuomo, a Democrat, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, had signaled their displeasure by calling on federal officials to give the memorial a financial and technical hand. Some victims' relatives saw the no-politicians anniversary ceremony as retaliation.
"Banning the governors of New York and New Jersey from speaking is the ultimate political decision," said one relatives' group, led by retired Deputy Fire Chief Jim Riches. His firefighter son and namesake was killed responding to the burning World Trade Center.
Spokesmen for Christie and Cuomo said the governors were fine with the memorial organizers' decision.
The restrictions will not extend to politicians at the other remembrances, however.
At the Pentagon outside of Washington, where more than 180 were killed when a hijacked plane was flown into it, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta was speaking in a ceremony that was closed to the public, attended only by victims' families.
Vice President Joe Biden will deliver remarks in Shanksville, Pa., where 40 passengers aboard United Flight 93 were killed when that plane crashed as they revolted against their hijackers.
"How we handle the legacy of these 40 people and what they did, what they kept from happening, is really more of a statement about ourselves, about what we value as a society," said Patrick White, current president of Families of Flight 93. White's cousin, Joey Nacke II, was among the passengers who stormed the cockpit.
U.S. authorities say the al-Qaida hijackers planned to crash that plane into the U.S. Capitol in Washington.
Moments of silence
Like so many of the previous anniversary dates, this year's ceremonies promise to unfold beneath blue skies and cool, early fall temperatures, conditions reminiscent of those on the morning of the 2001 attacks.
In New York, there will be moments of silence to signal the times of impact of each plane: at 8:46 a.m ET, 9:03 a.m., 9:37 a.m. and 10:03 a.m. Additional silences will be observed at 9:59 a.m. and 10:28 a.m., when the South and North Towers fell.
President Obama and his wife Michelle will participate in a moment of silence on the White House lawn and then attend the Pentagon Ceremony, the White House announced last week.
In Shanksville, the names of 40 crew members and passengers aboard the plane will be read beginning at 10:03 by victims' families and local volunteers who assisted in the aftermath of the attacks. A bell will ring for the name of each of the 40 victims, and a wreath will be laid at the Wall of Names honoring the dead.
Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar and White will also deliver remarks, the Parks Service said.
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