WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama appealed to an unsettled nation Saturday to honor the memory of the Sept. 11 attacks by hewing to the values of diversity and tolerance. "We will not sacrifice the liberties we cherish or hunker down behind walls of suspicion and mistrust," the president declared.
Speaking at the Pentagon, where nine years ago a hijacked plane smashed into the west side of the building and killed 184 people, Obama conjured a solemn remembrance of that horrible day but also spoke strongly in defense of religious freedom.
"As Americans we are not – and never will be – at war with Islam," the president said. "It was not a religion that attacked us that September day – it was al-Qaida, a sorry band of men which perverts religion."
His comments came on a Sept. 11 anniversary unlike others. In years past, the day was devoted to remembrances of the nearly 3,000 who died in jetliner attacks here, in New York City and in Pennsylvania, and to vows to serve in their honor and continue to pursue the terrorists behind the attacks.
This year, the common bonds rekindled by the memory of the attacks threaten to fray amid growing suspicion of Muslims in this country and controversies about a mosque planned near ground zero in New York and a pastor's threat to burn the Muslim holy book.
As Obama, joined by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, laid a wreath at the Pentagon memorial where American Airlines Flight 77 crashed, New York City braced for protests for and against the proposed Islamic cultural center.
Rev. Terry Jones called off his widely denounced plans to burn copies of the Quran, but damage was already done. In Kabul, Afghanistan, protesters set fire to tires in the streets and shouted "Death to America." Obama and Gates had warned that Jones' planned Quran burning threatened U.S. servicemembers and interests abroad.
Against that backdrop Obama spoke forcefully.
"The highest honor we can pay those we lost, indeed our greatest weapon in this ongoing war, is to do what our adversaries fear the most," the president said. "To stay true to who we are, as Americans; to renew our sense of common purpose; to say that we define the character of our country, and we will not let the acts of some small band of murderers who slaughter the innocent and cower in caves distort who we are."
Obama did not mention the New York City mosque, or the Florida pastor, but his message was clear. "We champion the rights of every American, including the right to worship as one chooses – as service members and civilians from many faiths do just steps from here, at the very spot where the terrorists struck this building," he said. The Pentagon houses a chapel where people of different religions can pray.
Obama also has sought to cast Sept. 11 as a day of service to others, and he participated himself by traveling to the Ronald H. Brown Middle School in northeast Washington to take part in Armed Services YMCA: Operation Kid Comfort. At the school, Obama helped paint a multipurpose room, and chatted with volunteers making quilts for children of deployed troops decorated with pictures of servicemembers.
First lady Michelle Obama appeared with Laura Bush in Shanksville, Pa., where the fourth plane crashed after passengers rushed the cockpit. Vice President Joe Biden and his wife, Jill, were in New York for the ceremony at ground zero.
The White House said Obama began the day by privately observing a moment of silence at 8:46, the time when the first plane crashed into the World Trade Center.
Associated Press writer Natasha Metzler contributed to this report.