By Ann Gerhart and David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, September 12, 2010; 4:08 AM
Moments of silence and reminders of American freedoms have become the healing rites of Sept. 11. On Saturday, heated arguments about the legacy and lessons of the terror attacks nine years ago finally seeped into the day itself.
Heightened anxieties over a fringe pastor's plan to burn copies of the Koran and demonstrations centering on a planned mosque near New York's Ground Zero set a newly divisive tone - one that suggested deepening discord over the role of Islam in America.
In services at the Pentagon, at Ground Zero and at a fledgling national park in Shanksville, Pa., political leaders called for tolerance and spoke of the sense of shared purpose that prevailed after terrorists killed nearly 3,000 people on Sept. 11, 2001.
President Obama reprised a theme that his precedessor emphasized in those first weeks while the country was still reeling: the importance of respect for Islam.
"As Americans we are not - and never will be - at war with Islam," Obama said in a speech at the Pentagon, as survivors of those who perished listened, a few nodding. "It was al-Qaeda, a sorry band of men which perverts religion. And just as we condemn intolerance and extremism abroad, so will we stay true to our traditions here at home as a diverse and tolerant nation."
The day's events offered a robust example of the tradition of free speech. In the capital a few hours later, a group of several hundred "tea party" activists paraded down Constitution Avenue, one carrying a sign of rebuttal: "America Is Tired of Tolerance."
In the past week, the proposal for an Islamic center near the site of the destroyed Twin Towers and the pastor's threats to burn the Koran have rubbed raw the fissures of a divided nation, battered economically and undergoing societal restructuring.
The Rev. Terry Jones declared on NBC's "Today" show Saturday that he was abandoning for good his plan to burn Islam's holy book, a threat that had touched off worldwide fury and prompted top U.S. leaders to warn that doing so would endanger troops at war. In Afghanistan, though protesters clashed with security forces, there were no reports of attacks at U.S. bases.
As a show of solidarity with Jones, Randall Terry, of the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue, and an assistant tore out pages of a Koran in Lafayette Park across from the White House. The act was largely unnoticed by tourists who milled about, taking photographs.
The first service of the day took place in Lower Manhattan, with a moment of silence at 8:46 a.m., the time that the first hijacked jetliner struck the north tower of the World Trade Center. Relatives of the victims and workers helping to construct a memorial read the names of more than 2,700 dead, as they do each year.
Their unsteady voices were a reminder of the way in which the terrorist attacks have been commemorated - as upwellings of personal grief, undiluted by time.
Donna Marsh O'Connor, who lost her pregnant 29-year-old daughter, Vanessa, on that day nine years ago, said she couldn't bear to attend the Ground Zero ceremony. She planned to return Saturday afternoon to her home in Syracuse, N.Y., where she is a professor of writing and rhetoric at Syracuse University, and keep the TV switched off and play with her dog, Lando.
The debate over whether to build the Islamic center near Ground Zero has imbued the day with unwelcome bitterness and rancor, she said.
"This is the hardest anniversary since," she said. "These are heartbreaking times. They're painful. They are scary as hell."
Jones, the Gainesville, Fla. pastor who threatened to burn copies of the Koran, was met by police when he arrived in New York on Saturday and was not seen in the hours that followed.
By 3 p.m., several hundred protesters had gathered into two city blocks near the proposed Park 51 Islamic center, waving American flags and chanting "U.S.A., U.S.A." and "No mosque." The "Rally of Remembrance" event featured speeches from conservative figures such as former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton - who spoke via video - and keynote speaker Geert Wilders, an anti-Islam Dutch politician.
Nearby, Maureen Santora - a schoolteacher from Astoria and the mother of firefighter Christopher Santora, who was killed on Sept. 11 - held a large banner that read "No mosque on our cemetery." She said it was a "difficult decision" for her family - her husband, four daughters and four grandchildren - to come to the rally on the ninth anniversary of her son's death.
She said that Muslims have worshiped peacefully in her neighborhood and in Lower Manhattan for years.
"It has nothing to do with Muslims and nothing to do with mosques. It has to do with the closeness to Ground Zero. That's the offensive point. It's very simple. It's not complicated," Santora said.
She continued: "This was a difficult decision for us to do this. I believe in my heart and my soul my son would want me to do this."
A short distance away, a crowd of about 300 supporters of the Islamic cultural center marched to the site, about two blocks from Ground Zero. Chanting "unity now," the marchers - a coalition of many liberal and civil rights groups - held signs that said "U.S. tolerates all religions" and "No to racism and anti-Muslim bigotry."
Muslim prayer services are normally held at the site, but it was padlocked Friday and closed Saturday, the official end of the holy month of Ramadan. Police planned 24-hour patrols in the coming days. Worshipers on Friday were redirected to a prayer room 10 blocks away.
Several feet away, 17-year-old Brooklyn resident Hannah Moch said she objected to people turning Sept. 11 into a political forum.
"I was here, I was 8 years old," she said. "Today is about the victims!"
"Today is about freedom of speech!" yelled an older man standing a few feet away.
"No sharia law!" a man shouted from the other side of Moch.
The dueling protests in New York were a prelude to more street debate expected later Saturday in Anchorage, Alaska, where Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin were to appear at a convention center. The two had sold nearly 4,000 tickets, priced between $73 and $225, and they had attracted the attention of an Alaskan woman who organized a small group to protest what she called Beck and Palin's "intolerant fear-mongering."
One spot of bipartisan comity took place on a rolling green hill in Pennsylvania, where former first lady Laura Bush and first lady Michelle Obama spoke about the inspiring action and unity among the 40 passengers of Flight 93, who overcame the hijackers and forced the plane down in Shanksville.
"It was following the tragic events of that September morning that we saw 'the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living,' said Bush, who that morning was in the Capitol, the iconic dome of which is believed to have been the target of Flight 93. "We saw it here as Shanksville's first responders rushed to this field . . . and in the endurance of all those who worked past exhaustion to rescue people trapped in the towers and the Pentagon."
As Obama's eyes filled with tears, Bush remembered how millions gave blood and went to memorial services, and she noted that they said their prayers "in English, Hebrew and Arabic."
Saying that "Americans have no division" in mourning the losses of that day, Bush added: "We still feel the wound of September 11."
Staff writers Michelle Boorstein, Nia-Malika Henderson, Annie Gowen, Tara Bahrampour, Donna St. George and Ernesto LondoÃ±o. LondoÃ±o reported from Kabul.