NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 08: An American flag flies in front of the construction site of One World Trade Center, previously called the Freedom Tower, at the former World Trade Center site on September 8, 2009 in New York City. Eight years after the September 11th terror attacks on the World Trade Center, New York City continues to rebuild the site in lower Manhattan. (Photo by Rick Gershon/Getty Images)
This year, September 11 is going to include something different – politics, and lots of it.
On the eve of the ninth anniversary of the terrorist attacks on Washington and New York, all evidence suggests that the once-sacrosanct nature of a day when candidates used to clear their schedules except for the most solemn and intimate of events and take down their television ads has fundamentally changed.
While accusations of politicizing 9/11 have been a staple of every anniversary, Saturday promises to be nothing if not partisan.
In New York City, dueling rallies are planned by opponents and supporters of the controversial Islamic center proposed for two blocks from the site of trade center towers. In Alaska, tea party superstars Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin are planning a joint-appearance in a big Anchorage arena apparently to celebrate their shared conservative faith-based values and commemorate the attacks, while in Washington, a coalition of tea party groups are planning a march on the National Mall. And a small church in Florida has created a firestorm with its plans to burn copies of the Koran.
But besides these highly publicized events, there’s a subtler change.
There are countless other more run-of-the-mill political events taking place across the country that wouldn’t raise eyebrows had they turned up on any other campaign season Saturday, but that rarely occurred during any of the previous eight Sept. 11ths.
From the Arkansas Razorbacks football tailgate party being thrown by Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln’s reelection campaign to Washington GOP Senate nominee Dino Rossi’s speech at a Tacoma area Republican women’s club fundraiser dubbed “Let’s Roll on to Victory” (a take on the exhortation of a passenger on a doomed flight who fought back the hijackers during the 2001 attacks), politicians no longer seem quite as anxious about being seen as treading on the hallowedness of the anniversary.
“The sanctity of observance tied to events no matter how catastrophic tends to erode over time,” said David Birdsell, a political science professor at New York’s Baruch College. “It doesn't take too long, and in this case we can see a really quite short lead time," he added, contrasting the upcoming anniversary with post-World War I Memorial Day observances.
Instead, he said partisans have quickly taken Sept. 11 “into the political realm” by channeling the anger, grief and frustration associated with the attacks “and steer(ing) those emotions into the cause you're trying to promote at the time.”
Especially in New York, a number of factors have converged to make this Sept. 11 less solemn and more political than year’s past. The white-hot debate over the Islamic center proposed for Lower Manhattan has coincided not only with the run-up to the mid-term elections in November but with a primary on Tuesday.
Organizers of Saturday’s events in the city and across the country have worked to inoculate themselves from the perception that they’re politicizing the anniversary.
Pam Geller, the blogger organizing the anti-mosque rally, said protestors at her event won’t carry signs or chant, but rather will carry flags, a fact that she explained to many victims' family members, some of whom are planning on attending.
“It is not a political rally,” she told POLITICO. “Thousands of patriots are paying our respects and mourning those we lost in the most heinous and brutal attack on our soil in this nation's history.”
Likewise, organizers of the counter protest say they intend to be respectful of the day, but don’t want to cede it to mosque opponents, who they contend are using it to stoke Islamophobia.
The mosque rally plans have divided not only relatives of the victims of the attacks, many of whom descend on Lower Manhattan from across the country to commemorate the attacks, but politicians.
Even some stridently anti-mosque New York Republicans such as such as Rep. Peter King and Senate long-shot Gary Bernsten are keeping their distance from Geller’s rally, while former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and prominent tea party activist Ginni Thomas turned down invitations to speak. Aides to Republican gubernatorial hopeful Rick Lazio, who's made the mosque his almost-exclusive issue for eight weeks, wouldn't say if he's attending, or politicking elsewhere on Saturday.
King, who has urged mosque opponents to schedule their protest for another day, told POLITICO he planned to attend a few “totally somber” local remembrance events, and he bemoaned the shifting sentiment surrounding the day.
"It's certainly different this year," he said, but he added, referring to the WTC workers' health bill and the mosque, "We really haven't before had events related to 9/11 coming up around 9/11."
Berntsen said he's not letting up in his criticism of the mosque, but said, "I believe that the anniversary of those vicious attacks is better spent in remembrance and is not the day to be engaging in political debate or protest."
The group 9/11 Parents & Families of Firefighters and WTC Victims expressed support for the anti-mosque rally. But its chairman Jim Riches, a former New York Fire Department deputy chief whose son was killed in the attack on the World Trade Center and who plans to attend Geller’s rally, similarly expressed misgivings about the anniversary’s increasing politicization.
"It's a shame,” he told POLITICO. “It seems like things have changed a little."
Both Geller and the organizers of Saturday’s tea party rally on the National Mall have highlighted the participation of relatives of 9/11 victims, and the Washington rally will be preceded by a memorial service at which some are scheduled to speak.
Stephani Scruggs, a leading organizer of the rally called it “a celebrate America rally. We feel that the best way to honor those who died for freedom is for we as citizens to stand up and pledge to defend it ourselves.” She shrugged off suggestions of politicization, contending “If we forever treat 9/11 as this day of silence and mourning, then the bad guys win.”
Scruggs is president of the group Unite in Action and co-chair of the 9.12 Project – which was started by the fiery conservative talker Beck and is run jointly by Scruggs and Beck’s ex-sister-in-law Yvonne Donnelly – both of which are behind Saturday’s march.
But Scruggs conceded that some other tea party groups were uneasy about holding a rally on the anniversary of the attacks. And there’s been occasionally intense infighting between the activists behind Saturday’s march and other, more prominent tea party groups – including the national coalition Tea Party Patriots and former House Speaker Dick Armey’s FreedomWorks – that are teaming up for what’s expected to be a significantly larger rally on the National Mall the following day – Sunday, Sept. 12.
Beck has urged the tea party groups to stop squabbling, but has focused for the most part on his own events, including a rally late last month featuring Palin and his Sept. 11 event with her in Anchorage.
The promoter told the Associated Press it was coincidence that the event, which has sparked plans for two protests, happened to fall on the anniversary of the attacks.
And, in his characteristically coy prompotions on his radio show of his Saturday event, Beck didn’t mention the convergence with the Sept. 11 anniversary. He also declined to answer his co-host’s questions about whether the event would be political in nature, though Palin has suggested it would pay homage to the 2001 attacks.
“We can count on Glenn to make the night interesting and inspiring,” she wrote on her Facebook page, “and I can think of no better way to commemorate 9/11 than to gather with patriots who will ‘never forget.’”
Yet the event – for which tickets range from $74 to $225 (with the costliest tickets including a “Meet and Greet” with Beck) – has predictably drawn scathing criticism from liberals, who have blasted it alternatively as a “another of the money-making schemes that they are both deeply devoted to,” a platform from which to use 9/11 themes to advance their populist conservative politics or even to launch a 2012 GOP presidential ticket.
In fact, the liberal Media Matters group noted gleefully that last year Beck blasted President Barack Obama’s designation of Sept. 11 as a national day of service as "the rape of a sacred memory."
Obama’s political team has been acutely sensitive to Sept. 11 optics, but he again is drawing flak from the right in the run up to this year’s anniversary after clumsily wading into the mosque debate, then deciding to attend a Saturday memorial at the Pentagon rather than the World Trade Center site.
The White House is sending first lady Michelle Obama to join her predecessor Laura Bush at a memorial service at the crash site of the hijacked United Flight 93 in Southwestern Pennsylvania. In 2008, as a presidential candidate, then-Sen. Obama and his Republican rival, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, suspended their campaigns to make a joint appearance at the Trade Center site.
This year, though, many more politicians and groups are continuing the often mundane business of campaigning clear through the anniversary, though many said the timing of their events was coincidental, and almost all were eager to explain how their events were consistent with the solemn spirit of the legacy of Sept. 11.
Diana Landahl, president of the Gig Harbor, Wash., Republican club holding the “Let’s Roll on to Victory” fundraiser, said “it was kind of coincidental that we ended up on 9/11, but once we realized it, we decided to make note of this.”
And she asserted events like her club’s can play an important role in keeping the attacks fresh in the national psyche. “There has been concern among people who I’ve talked to that the further we get from 9/11 it tends to fade into the background and people seem to be forgetting what happened to us on 9/11,” she said.
Rita Horsey, a Maine tea party activist organizing a pig roast fundraiser Saturday to benefit Paul LePage‘s Republican gubernatorial campaign, said “I don’t think it’s frowned upon to have (political) events on Sept. 11, so long as we remember Sept 11,” she said, adding she intended to include such a commemoration.
Democrats in one Indiana county scheduled their annual Jefferson-Jackson Day Dinner for Saturday, charging activists $25 to hear speeches by a host of state Democrats, including one from the party’s Senate nominee Rep. Brad Ellsworth.
But someone familiar with the event said Ellsworth’s “remarks will be a tribute to those individuals who step forward to serve their communities,” that the event “is focused on honoring the service of first responders” and that proceeds will go “to fund a scholarship for a local student interested in pursuing a career as a first responder.”
Likewise, at the Saturday morning breakfast in Milford, N.H., sponsored by the Senate campaign of Rep. Paul Hodes (D-N.H.) as part of his "Wake Up, Washington!" tour, Hodes’s spokesman said “Paul will ask all those in attendance to recognize the victims of the attacks of Sept. 11th with a moment of silence.”
And the spokesman, Matt House, added “Paul will also attend the largest-ever deployment ceremony for members of the New Hampshire National Guard, who have been asked to go above and beyond the call of duty in the nine years since the 9/11 tragedy.”
Lincoln’s campaign stressed that her campaign event, dubbed “Blanche's Tailgate,” is not a fundraiser (though after RSVP’ing on her website, users are redirected to a donation page), but rather “just hamburgers and hot dogs” outside the stadium.
“Sen. Lincoln will attend the pre-game tailgate and game along with roughly 60,000 other U. of A. fans,” said her spokeswoman Katie Laning Niebaum, adding Lincoln “believes we should never forget the innocent men and women who lost their lives in the Sept. 11 attacks.”
And Bill Davis, a Republican state representative from Indiana, said his “Rally at the Roundhouse,” which he has held each of the last three election years and which will feature a speech by Rep. Mike Pence, is “more about patriotism and getting people enthused about voting and being an American and supporting our troops, than it is about the politics and that kind of thing.”