New towers are finally rising from Ground Zero, but disputes over plans for a nearby mosque and a Florida pastor's vow to burn the Koran ensure this Saturday's 9/11 anniversary will be unusually bitter.
If rebuilding the World Trade Center was all that mattered, Americans might be able to
move on from the trauma of September 11, 2001, when Islamist terrorists used hijacked airliners as guided missiles to kill almost 3,000 people.
After nine years of embarrassing delays, the lower Manhattan site no longer resembles a vast bomb crater in the middle of some of the world's most expensive real estate.
The first 36 floors of the 106-story One World Trade Center tower have been built and a 9/11 memorial featuring two waterfalls and a park of 400 oak trees is on schedule to open by the 10th anniversary next year, with a museum opening the year after that.
"It's hard to think back on the tragedy that took place on 9/11 but how we came out of that is something that all Americans should be proud of," Mayor Michael Bloomberg said Tuesday.
Yet that achievement -- and even the somber, annual ritual of reading out every victim's name -- is likely to be overshadowed this Saturday by a nasty and politically charged uproar over Islam.
The main flashpoint could be far from the 9/11 sites -- in Gainesville, Florida, where an evangelical pastor plans the public burning of the Muslim holy book, the Koran. Everyone from top members of the administration of President Barack Obama, who will attend a ceremony at the Pentagon on Saturday, to the Vatican, has condemned the plan, but there appears to be little under US free speech laws that can be done to stop it.
If it goes ahead, the Koran burning has the potential for provoking worldwide Muslim unrest similar to the turmoil sparked by the publication in a Danish newspapers of cartoons blaspheming the Prophet Mohammed.
But the threatened Koran desecration is only the most lurid element in a wider debate rooted in plans for a mosque and Islamic community center two blocks from Ground Zero. A demonstration against the center, known as Park51, is planned on Saturday, breaking an unwritten rule against politicizing 9/11 anniversaries.
Another rally, this time in favor, will be staged late Friday. The imam and entrepreneurs behind Park51 say the project represents a chance to integrate moderate Muslims into US society. "Our objective has always been to make this a center for unification and healing," Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf wrote in The New York Times on Wednesday.
He has the support of Bloomberg, among others, and Obama has defended the right of Muslims to build the mosque. Opponents, though, have the backing of other senior national politicians portraying the Islamic center as an affront to what they call "hallowed ground" at the World Trade Center.
It's an argument gaining traction ahead of November 2 midterm elections in which Republicans could deal Obama's Democrats serious losses. With US troops bogged down against the Taliban in Afghanistan and domestic security services uncovering a steady stream of alleged bomb plots, Americans are not in a relaxed mood.
As the hawkish independent US Senator Joseph Lieberman, says, "the threat of a domestic terrorist attack on Americans, therefore, remains as real today as it was nine years ago." The mosque issue was almost unknown a few months ago but breathless media coverage and electioneering has pushed it to the front burner.
Polls show growing numbers of people -- including two thirds of New Yorkers -- oppose the location. Away from the furor, the nation will pause as always for ceremonies marking the moments when airliners slammed into the Twin Towers, another hit the Pentagon outside Washington, and a fourth crashed into a Pennsylvania field.
Vice President Joe Biden will represent the White House in New York, where each year survivors of those killed in the World Trade Center read out the names of the dead from a podium at Ground Zero.
Many of the bodies of the 2,752 people killed in the fiery collapse of the Twin Towers have never been identified and this summer city forensic experts conducted a 1.4-million-dollar search through mountains of debris for even the tiniest human fragments. Nine years on, laying to rest the ghosts of 9/11 has gotten no easier.
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