Obama Dedicates 9/11 Memorial Museum

Obama Dedicates 9/11 Memorial Museum, New York Times, by Peter Baker and Stephen Farrell, May 15, 2014
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new-york-times-logoPresident Obama on Thursday dedicated the long-awaited museum commemorating the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, with a mournful elegy to the victims, a stirring tribute to the heroes and a firm resolve to never let terrorists shatter the spirit of America.

“No act of terror can match the strength or the character of our country,” Mr. Obama told a crowd that included family members of those slain and other invited guests in the cavernous underground hall of the National September 11 Memorial Museum. “Like the great wall and bedrock that embrace us today,” he added, “nothing can ever break us. Nothing can change who we are as Americans.”

The president’s remarks highlighted a somber ceremony at the new institution marking the worst foreign attack on American soil, one that shocked the world and ushered in a new era of fear, war, determination and clashes of values while redefining America’s place in the world. Surrounded by the twisted and graffiti-inscribed steel remnants of New York’s twin towers, the president and the other guests vowed never to forget.

Former Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg played host for the event, joined by a plethora of other major figures from the region, including Govs. Chris Christie of New Jersey and Andrew M. Cuomo of New York, Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York, former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and former Gov. George E. Pataki.

Outside, flags were at half-staff on the memorial plaza, where bronze panels bear the names of the nearly 3,000 people who perished in New York, Northern Virginia and Pennsylvania on Sept. 11, and in the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993.

Inside, the event was held in the museum’s Foundation Hall, 70 feet beneath ground level, at bedrock, with around 700 invited guests attending.

Mr. Obama, solemn and quiet, used his remarks not to talk about the events that followed that day, the wars he has tried to end and the policies he has reshaped but continued. Instead, he focused on the victims who perished in flames and smoke and those who tried to save them.

“Here we tell their story, so that generations yet unborn will never forget, of co-workers who led others to safety,” he said.

He singled out the heroism of a young man with a red bandanna who helped save people in the south tower before it collapsed. His identity was long unknown until months later when his mother read an article about the mysterious savior with the red bandanna and recognized him. He was Welles Crowther, 24.

“He had a big laugh and a joy of life and dreams of seeing the world,” Mr. Obama said. “He worked in finance, but he had also been a volunteer firefighter. And after the planes hit, he put on that bandanna and spent his final moments saving others.”

Joining Mr. Obama for a tour of the museum before the ceremony were former President Bill Clinton and former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. A spokesman for former President George W. Bush, who was in office on the day of the attacks, said he was invited but could not make it because of a scheduling conflict.

Mr. Obama’s remarks were crisp and short. He was given just three minutes on the program, although he took nine, an unusually short speech for a president at such a high-profile event. But he was not the main focus of the day. In addition to the political figures, survivors and relatives of victims told their stories in videos projected on the wall or from the podium — including Alison Crowther, who was Mr. Crowther’s mother, and Ling Young, who was among those he saved that day.

Eileen Fagan, whose sister Patricia died on the 98th floor of the south tower, also attended the ceremony. Some of her sister’s remains have been identified, and she chose to leave part of them in a specially built medical examiner’s repository at the site, which is separated from the museum by a wall.

“Everyone here can feel the presence of their loved one, in a very real way,” she said. “I walked with Pat through the World Trade Center so many times and I feel like I am walking with Pat again. It’s a good feeling, a little bit sad, but a good feeling.”

As for Mr. Obama, he was a state senator in Illinois on the day of the attacks. In his book “The Audacity of Hope,” he recalled hearing about the first plane hitting the tower while listening to the radio in a car on the way to a legislative hearing in Chicago. By the time he arrived, the second tower had been hit and the government office in Chicago was evacuated.

“Up and down the streets, people gathered, staring at the sky and at the Sears Tower,” he wrote. “Later, in my law office, a group of us sat motionless as the nightmare images unfolded across the TV screen.”

While he was not seared by the experience in the same way as Mr. Bush, who took from it a mission to tackle terrorism around the world and protect America from any further attack, it fell to Mr. Obama to inherit the wars that followed when he took over the Oval Office in 2009.

He has spent the last five years trying to find what he considers the right balance in the nation’s struggle with terrorism. He continued many of Mr. Bush’s counterterrorism policies, including drone strikes in the tribal regions of Pakistan and surveillance programs that have stirred international controversy, and brought to a dramatic finish the global manhunt for Osama bin Laden with a bold special forces raid that ended in the death of bin Laden.

But Mr. Obama has sought to move away from what he sees as a permanent, all-consuming war on terror. He pulled all American troops from Iraq and plans to pull nearly all from Afghanistan by the end of the year. And yet many of his ideas for reshaping American national security have not been brought to fruition, whether it be restricting the C.I.A. involvement in drones or closing the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

Mr. Obama talked about none of that on Thursday. With Michelle Obama, Mr. Bloomberg and the Clintons, he toured the exhibits beforehand, stopping to stare at photographs of victims mounted on a wall, examining a battered New York Fire Department ladder truck and passing a wall engraved by a Virgil quote: “No Day Shall Erase You From the Memory of Time.”

He called it “a profound and moving experience,” and he noted that one of the items on display was a red bandanna that once belonged to Welles Crowther.

“And from this day forward,” Mr. Obama said, “all those who come here will have a chance to know the sacrifice of a young man who, like so many, gave his life so others might live.”

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