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

VIDEO: Cameras catch some heated exchanges between opposing protestors.PlayABCNEWS.com
WATCH Tempers Flare During 9/11 Protests

Dueling protests are taking place in lower Manhattan near the site of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center this afternoon after today's solemn ceremony honoring the victims of the attacks, which took place nine years ago today.

Protesters who oppose the building of an Islamic center near the former World Trade Center site have gathered a few blocks from Ground Zero, can be heard chanting "USA! USA!," and are holding signs reading "Never forgive, never forget, no WTC mosque," according to the Associated Press.

Just a few blocks away a group of about 1000 people gathered by City Hall and marched towards Ground Zero in support of the building of the Islamic center. Leah Christiani was in that crowd.

"It's so unfortunate that we had to be here to counter-protest what's going on -- but at the same time I think if we weren't here pushing back, it would be even worse, because it would be allowing this wave of hatred to just take over the country," Christiani said.

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

"In this country, we have freedom of religion, so if a group purchases an area…they should be able to build whatever they want there!"

Earlier today in a speech at the Pentagon, President Obama followed a week of highly charged political discourse with a reminder that America is not at war with Islam and a call for national unity.

"As Americans, we will not and never will be at war with Islam," Obama said at the memorial service. "It was not a religion that attacked us that September day. It was al-Qaeda, a sorry band of men which perverts religion."

"Those who attacked us sought to demoralize us, to divide us, to deprive us of the very unity, the very ideals that make America America," he added. "Today we declare once more we will never hand them that victory..For our cause is just, our spirit is strong, our resolve is unwavering."

Earlier this morning on his weekly radio and Internet address, Obama urged Americans to look towards common interests and unity.

"We are one nation — one people — bound not only by grief, but by a set of common ideals," Obama said.

"This is a time of difficulty for our country. And it is often in such moments that some try to stoke bitterness — to divide us based on our differences, to blind us to what we have in common. But on this day, we are reminded that at our best, we do not give in to this temptation," Obama said.

"We will never forget the images of planes vanishing into buildings; of photos hung by the families of the missing. And while nine years have come and gone since that September morning, the passage of time will never diminish the pain and loss forever seared in the consciousness of our nation," Obama said.

Meanwhile, Vice President Joe Biden joined New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and hundreds of mourners who lost friends and family in the attacks at Ground Zero in lower Manhattan.

First lady Michelle Obama was joined by former first lady Laura Bush in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, where Flight 93 crashed.

Former President George W. Bush reflected on those Americans who were called to action on that morning, and have worked tirelessly since.

"We recall the many acts of heroism on that day, and we honor those who work tirelessly to prevent another attack," said Bush in a statement released this morning. "May God bless our great country and those who defend her."

The ninth anniversary of the attacks has been embroiled in controversy over the planned Muslim center near Ground Zero and more recently with Florida Pastor Terry Jones, who threatened to burn Korans on today's anniversary of 9/11.

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.

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."