9/11: Emotional, Political Flashpoint Nine Years After Attacks

VIDEO: Cynthia McFadden: Inside One World Trade CenterPlayABCNEWS.com
WATCH Cynthia McFadden: Inside One World Trade Center

Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck will rendezvous in Alaska Saturday for what Palin calls a gathering of "patriots who will 'never forget'" the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

Critics, however, say that nine years after the terror attacks, the political language around the anniversary has changed and become divisive. The Palin comment carries the suggestion that some Americans are patriots who remember while others are detractors who forget.

Furor Over Islamic CenterPlay
A Trip to Site of Proposed Islamic Center

Organizers of the event have pledged it will be non-political and similar to the Washington, D.C., rally the duo held two weeks ago. But with tickets running up to $200 a head and the featured speakers two politically-charged figures skeptics see manipulation of a solemn anniversary -- and the latest sign the tragedy of nine years ago has become national political fodder.

"Right now, this is the most heartbreaking anniversary," said Donna O'Connor, whose daughter was killed in the World Trade Center. "The politicization is worse than I ever could have imagined."

For years, the 9/11 attacks had been unofficially off-limits – even deemed politically risky -- for use by elected officials and candidates for office in their appeals to voters.

On the first anniversary of the attacks in 2002, then New York Gov. George Pataki read the Gettysburg Address, rather than an original speech, for fear of politicizing the memorial.

"I thought it was important not to have politicians speaking and to let it be a moment where instead of a politician giving a message, we reflected on the message sent by the thousands who died on Sept. 11 and the thousands of others who a year later were still working so hard to bring New York and America back," Pataki told ABCNews.com.

When George W. Bush in 2004, and Rudy Giuliani and Hillary Clinton in 2007 raised Sept. 11 imagery in their ads they were widely scolded.

But now the emotional flashpoint of 9/11 is being much more freely used, with the controversial Islamic center planned for near Ground Zero driving national debate, imagery of the attacks cropping up in midterm election campaign ads, and the anniversary shaping up to be a day of political rallies instead of bipartisan displays.

9/11 Imagery Appears in 2010 Campaign Ads

Pataki and others believe the partisanship around 9/11 is unseemly and regrettable.

"I do lament the fact that the tremendous sense of unity we had after Sept. 11 is no longer the case," said Pataki. "We were for a while all united, everyone, young and old, black and white, rich and poor, Republican and Democrat, liberal and conservative. Sept. 11 gave us the opportunity to set a national agenda instead of a partisan agenda. Unfortunately, now we're seeing the opposite."

The debate over construction of a Muslim community center in Manhattan and First Amendment rights to religious freedom have also in large part opened the door to politicization of 9/11 in the 2010 campaign.

Missouri Republican Rep. Roy Blunt, who's running for U.S. Senate, posted a video on his campaign website last month juxtaposing his opponent Robin Carnahan's support for Islamic center with images of the 9/11 destruction which occurred just two blocks away. He later claimed not to know about the ad and it was pulled down, but the audio of Carnahan's statements remains.

In Kentucky, Republican candidates Trey Grayson and Rand Paul both unleashed ads featuring 9/11 during their GOP senate primary battle. And in New York, Republican gubernatorial candidate Rick Lazio has defended putting scenes from the attacks to eerie music in a video ad highlighting his opposition to the proposed Ground Zero Mosque.

"This was one of the most traumatic attacks in living American history and people are going to use it to make points," said David Perlmutter an expert in use of imagery in political communications at the University of Iowa.

"There was a grace period after the attacks when people didn't want to think politically or see politicians using images from 9/11 in a calculated way," he said. "But war and politics have never been inseparable."

As for Palin and Beck's stated desire to keep politics out of their event on Saturday, Perlmutter said it may be impossible to do because of their very nature.

"When you are an elected official or hope to be an elected official, it's hard to separate politics from what you do all the time," he said.

And even if they could, opposing local political groups are already planning rallies before the event and outside the venue, the Dena'ina Civic and Convention Center in Anchorage.

"I'm not going to say what others should or shouldn't do," said Pataki of the Palin-Beck event. "I certainly believe it's important we never forget we were attacked and commemorate the day appropriately."