President Obama made a brief but solemn visit to the site of Osama bin Laden's most heinous crime Thursday, meeting with first responders and the family members of 9/11 victims in his first trip to New York since the al Qaeda leader's death.
At the World Trade Center site itself, he made no speeches, simply leaving a wreath composed of red, white and blue flowers in front of what has come to be known as the "Survivor Tree." Then Obama walked over to 14-year-old Payton Wall, whose father was killed nearby nearly ten years ago, and gave her a hug.
"We just talked," Wall told television crews after her meeting with the president, which was prompted by a letter she wrote him just days ago. She was joined by her younger sister, a friend who also lost a parent on 9/11, and her mother.
Before that visit to Lower Manhattan, Obama met with a group of New York City firefighters in a station that lost 15 members on September 11, 2001. Bin Laden's death, he said in his most extensive public remarks, sent a message "that when we say we will never forget, we mean what we say."
And, he added pointedly, he believed that "when those guys took those extraordinary risks going into Pakistan, that they were doing it in part because of the sacrifices that were made in the States. They were doing it in the name of your brothers that were lost."
Although some on the right had contended that Obama's visit to New York would serve as little more than a "victory lap," including, supposedly, an anonymous member of the George W. Bush camp, the mood throughout the day was somber. The trip was Obama's first to Ground Zero since 2008.
After he laid the wreath just steps from where the World Trade Center towers once stood, Obama had a private meeting with about 60 people who lost family members on 9/11.
For Lee Ielpi, a retired member of the FDNY whose firefighter son died responding to the attack on the World Trade Center, that meeting was "casual." He noted that "there was no script. I was impressed, he spoke from the heart, he was very sincere, he spoke about the mission and that it was accomplished, which I really thought was very nice."
Inside the meeting, President Obama spoke for a short time to the assembled family members as a whole.
"There's a word that most families don't like or understand, and that's closure, and he never said it," Ielpi told HuffPost afterward. "The word he used was peace -- I hope this brings some peace to your families."
After that, the president went from table to table speaking with the family members. Ielpi described a quiet but "very powerful" series of encounters. "He went and spoke with every single family member there -- shook their hands, shared a tear with them."
Debra Burlingame, an often-time critic of the president from the right whose brother was the pilot of the plane that flew into the Pentagon, told Fox News the event was "very social." The president's entrance was "almost like a neighbor coming into a barbecue, there was no pomp, no ceremony." She left still dissatisfied with the president's policies.
Talat Hamdani, a Muslim American critic of Guantanamo whose son was a NYPD cadet killed responding to the attacks, said she was surprised at how much the president's visit meant to her. "I never realized that I would feel all these emotions, feeling overwhelmed," she said.
"It was just a, you know, a very special moment, especially at the 9/11 memorial, to know that your president cares for you," she said. She too described a quiet, sober meeting: "He exudes so much calmness, it was inexpressible."
Brennan Basnicki, 26, whose father was killed on September 11, did not attend, saying that "While President Obama's visit is a kind and respectable gesture, the reality is that his visit doesn't change the events that have taken place."
The meeting with family members lasted less than an hour, and then the president was gone, leaving on a helicopter for Kennedy International Airport.
New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who attended the wreath ceremony, expressed satisfaction with the trip, saying, "I was inspired by the strength of the families who stood here today, thinking of their loved ones, knowing that the first chapter has closed and moving to the next chapter."
Gillibrand was joined by a number of prominent politicians from New York and the tri-state area, including Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-N.Y.) and Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), and Republican elected officials like Rep. Peter King (N.Y.) and Gov. Chris Christie (N.J.).
King said, "Visiting Ground Zero was the appropriate thing for the President to do. It was very meaningful to the 9/11 families. The President handled it with great dignity."
Many details of the trip came together at the last minute, with some invitees receiving invitations just a few hours before Obama arrived in the city. The small number of family members who were able to attend -- just around 60 relatives for the nearly 3,000 individuals who died on September 11 -- led to some complaints about the selection process.
Donna Marsh O'Connor, who lost a daughter on 9/11, said before Obama's trip that "The visit is fine but the mysterious planning for it is divisive and problematic." According to the White House, invitees were chosen in consultation with the National 9/11 Memorial and were intended to serve as a "cross section" of family members.
For Ielpi, that cross section worked, creating a "diverse" group around him. And even though fierce critics of the president like 9/11 Burlingame were invited, he said he "didn't hear any politics."
Though President Obama invited his predecessor to attend the memorial, Bush declined. The event as a whole stood in stark contrast to George W. Bush's famous stand atop the World Trade Center rubble with a bullhorn, where he promised that "the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon!"
Nearly ten years later, after two wars and a long, frustrating search for justice for Bin Laden's victims, Obama seemed content for the most part to let SEAL Team Six's work speak for itself. On Friday he will meet with members of that elite team.
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