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Obama Kennedy Center Speech: America Is Stronger After 9/11 (VIDEO)

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By BEN FELLER & NANCY BENAC, THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

(AP) WASHINGTON -- Ten years after the nation was unified in horror, President Barack Obama honored the legacy of Sept. 11 victims on Sunday by personally tracing the trail of the terrorist attacks, proudly declaring that the decade since has proven "America does not give in to fear."

At ground zero, Obama stood in solidarity with President George W. Bush right where hijacked airliners smashed into the twin World Trade Center towers in 2001. He touched the names of those etched into a bronze memorial amid the rush of its striking waterfalls.

In a field in western Pennsylvania, Obama strolled along a marbled Wall of Names that stands in tribute to the 40 people who crashed in Shanksville after fighting back against the terrorists. Obama seemed to shake the hand of every person he could reach.

In the rebuilt Pentagon just outside the nation's capital, the symbol of U.S. military might attacked by terrorists that day, Obama placed a wreath at a memorial where each of 184 victims is remembered. A brass quartet played a soulful rendition of "Amazing Grace."

And finally, back in Washington, after a day he chose to mark mainly by quiet presence, the president spoke of the pride of a nation.

"These past 10 years have shown that America does not give in to fear," he said. Nor to suspicion or mistrust or sacrificed values, he said.

"Our people still work in skyscrapers," Obama said during an evening ceremony centered on American hope and resilience.

"Our stadiums are still filled with fans, and our parks full of children playing ball. ... This land pulses with the optimism of those who set out for distant shores, and the courage of those who died for human freedom."

This was not a day centered on politics.

Rancor fell away, as it always tends to do on Sept. 11. Yet this anniversary felt different.

Ten years.

Obama's principal role was simply to be there – to be there at every site – as the nation remembered the nearly 3,000 lives lost and ponder all that has transpired.

On a brilliant, sun-splashed morning, Obama and his wife, Michelle, first walked with Bush and his wife, Laura, to the new North Memorial Pool at New York's ground zero. All four touched the names etched in bronze and silently bowed their heads. The former president wore his anguish clearly.

They then turned to dispense greetings and hugs to family members of those who died.

Obama read Psalm 46, which he chose because it speaks of perseverance.

"God is our refuge and strength," Obama said, "a very present help in trouble. Therefore, we will not fear."

Bush gave Obama a quick nod of solidarity after the president's reading. It was the first time the two presidents had seen each other since their Rose Garden appearance after the Haiti earthquake in January 2010.

A little boy, sitting on his dad's shoulders with a pacifier in his mouth, watched the solemn ceremony and took off his baseball cap in respect.

Obama heard family members of the victims read off their lost loved ones' names and bring their memories to life.

The presidents and their wives stood behind bulletproof glass during the ceremony, an indication of the tight security surrounding the day's events. In Washington, Obama's chief counterterrorism adviser convened a meeting in the Situation Room to review security threats.

Obama's stop in Shanksville drew spontaneous applause and chants of "USA" from those at the memorial site. Obama and his wife lingered at the site to pose for photos with visitors, greet children and share some laughs.

His mood seemed to brighten the longer he went.

"Thanks for getting bin Laden," one man called out, referring to the Sept. 11 mastermind tracked down and killed in Pakistan earlier this year.

The Obamas walked to a boulder that marks the actual crash site and stood quietly together in a field of wildflowers for a time.

"I think it's just important that the president shows his support for the families that lost loved ones," said Jaleel Dyson, an 18-year-old from Washington who attends college in the area and came to pay tribute to the dead.

At the Pentagon, the Obamas took their time mingling with memorial visitors and victims' family members, some of them wearing ribbons and T-shirts bearing the names and photos of their loved ones. Here, too, amid the sadness, there were smiles and laughter.

Obama, who was an unknown state senator from Illinois when the hijackers struck, has called on Americans to remember and serve – and to come together.

"Ten years later, I'd say America came through this thing in a way that was consistent with our character," he told NBC News. "We've made mistakes. Some things haven't happened as quickly as they needed to. But overall, we took the fight to al-Qaida, we preserved our values, we preserved our character."

In the broadcast interview, Obama recalled going home after the attacks and rocking his baby daughter, Sasha. "Our first reaction was, and continues to be, just heartbreak for the families involved. The other thing that we all remember is how America came together."

Capping a journey of heavy emotion, Obama said in the nighttime event in Washington that the legacy of 9/11 will be that the country took an enormous blow and emerged stronger. He said the Americans will remember that when they visit the memorials for decades to come.

"They will know that nothing can break the will of a truly United States of America," he said. "They will remember that we have overcome slavery and Civil War; we've overcome bread lines and fascism, recession and riots, Communism and, yes, terrorism."

Below, text of the president's speech at the Kennedy Center commemorating the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, as delivered:

The Bible tells us, "Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning."

Ten years ago, America confronted one of our darkest nights. Mighty towers crumbled. Black smoke billowed up from the Pentagon. Airplane wreckage smoldered on a Pennsylvania field. Friends and neighbors, sisters and brothers, mothers and fathers, sons and daughters – they were taken from us with heartbreaking swiftness and cruelty. On September 12, 2001, we awoke to a world in which evil was closer at hand, and uncertainty clouded our future.

In the decade since, much has changed for Americans. We've known war and recession, passionate debates and political divides. We can never get back the lives that were lost on that day, or the Americans who made the ultimate sacrifice in the wars that followed.

And yet today, it is worth remembering what has not changed. Our character as a nation has not changed. Our faith – in God and each other – that has not changed. Our belief in America, born of a timeless ideal that men and women should govern themselves; that all people are created equal, and deserve the same freedom to determine their own destiny – that belief, through tests and trials, has only been strengthened.

These past 10 years have shown that America does not give in to fear. The rescue workers who rushed to the scene; the firefighters who charged up the stairs; the passengers who stormed the cockpit – these patriots defined the very nature of courage. Over the years we have also seen a more quiet form of heroism – in the ladder company that lost so many men and still suits up and saves lives every day; the businesses that have rebuilt from nothing; the burn victim who has bounced back; the families that press on.

Last spring, I received a letter from a woman named Suzanne Swaine. She had lost her husband and brother in the Twin Towers, and said that she had been robbed of "so many would-be proud moments where a father watches their child graduate, or tend goal in a lacrosse game, or succeed academically." But her daughters are in college, the other doing well in high school. "It has been 10 years of raising these girls on my own," Suzanne wrote. "I could not be prouder of their strength and resilience." That spirit typifies our American family. And the hopeful future for those girls is the ultimate rebuke to the hateful killers who took the life of their father.

These past ten years have shown America's resolve to defend its citizens, and our way of life. Diplomats serve in far-off posts, and intelligence professionals work tirelessly without recognition. Two million Americans have gone to war since 9/11. They have demonstrated that those who do us harm cannot hide from the reach of justice, anywhere in the world. America has been defended not by conscripts, but by citizens who choose to serve – young people who signed up straight out of high school; guardsmen and reservists; workers and businesspeople; immigrants and fourth-generation soldiers. They are men and women who left behind lives of comfort for two, three, four or five tours of duty. Too many will never come home. Those that do carry dark memories from distant places, and the legacy of fallen friends.

The sacrifices of these men and women, and of our military families, remind us that the wages of war are great; that while service to our nation is full of glory, war itself is never glorious. Our troops have been to lands unknown to many Americans a decade ago – to Kandahar and Kabul, to Mosul and Basra. But our strength is not measured in our ability to stay in these places; it comes from our commitment to leave those lands to free people and sovereign states, and our desire to move from a decade of war to a future of peace.

These 10 years have shown that we hold fast to our freedoms. Yes, we are more vigilant against those who threaten us, and there are inconveniences that come with our common defense. Debates – about war and peace, about security and civil liberties – have often been fierce these last 10 years. But it is precisely the rigor of these debates, and our ability to resolve them in a way that honors our values and our democracy, that is a measure of our strength. Meanwhile, our open markets still provide innovators with the chance to create, our citizens are still free to speak their minds, and our souls are still enriched in churches and temples, our synagogues and mosques.

These past 10 years underscore the bonds between all Americans. We have not succumbed to suspicion and we have not succumbed to mistrust. After 9/11, to his great credit, President Bush made clear what we reaffirm today: The United States will never wage war against Islam or any religion. Immigrants come here from all parts of the globe. In the biggest cities and the smallest towns, in schools and workplaces, you still see people of every conceivable race, religion and ethnicity – all of them pledging allegiance to the flag, all of them reaching for the same American dream – e pluribus unum, out of many, we are one.

These past 10 years tell a story of our resilience. The Pentagon is repaired, filled with patriots working in common purpose. Shanksville is the scene of friendships forged between residents of that town, and families who lost loved ones there. New York remains the most vibrant of capitals of arts and industry, fashion and commerce. Where the World Trade Center once stood, the sun glistens off a new tower that reaches toward the sky. Our people still work in skyscrapers. Our stadiums are filled with fans, and our parks full of children playing ball. Our airports hum with travel, and our buses and subways take millions where they need to go. Families sit down to Sunday dinner, and students prepare for school. This land pulses with the optimism of those who set out for distant shores, and the courage of those who died for human freedom.

Decades from now, Americans will visit the memorials to those who were lost on 9/11. They will run their fingers over the places where the names of those we loved are carved into marble and stone, and they may wonder at the lives they led. Standing before the white headstones in Arlington, and in peaceful cemeteries and small-town squares in every corner of our country, they will pay respects to those lost in Afghanistan and Iraq. They will see the names of the fallen on bridges and statues, at gardens and schools.

And they will know that nothing can break the will of a truly United States of America. They will remember that we have overcome slavery and Civil War; we've overcome bread lines and fascism; recession and riots; Communism and, yes, terrorism. They will be reminded that we are not perfect, but our democracy is durable, and that democracy – reflecting, as it does, the imperfections of man – also gives us the opportunity to perfect our union. That is what we honor on days of national commemoration – those aspects of the American experience that are enduring, and the determination to move forward as one people.

More than monuments, that will be the legacy of 9/11 – a legacy of firefighters who walked into fire and soldiers who signed up to serve; of workers who raised new towers, of citizens who faced down fear, most of all of children who realized the dreams of their parents. It will be said of us that we kept that faith; that we took a painful blow, and we emerged stronger than before.

"Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning."

With a just God as our guide, let us honor those who have been lost, let us rededicate ourselves to the ideals that define our nation, and let us look to the future with hearts full of hope. May God bless the memory of those we lost, and may God bless the United States of America.

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