Fight over Ground Zero sets up most political 9/11 anniversary yet

The rancorous debate over a proposed mosque near Ground Zero is threatening to sweep away the political détente long reserved for the anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Solemn memorials and tributes to the fallen have become tradition for the annual observance, along with a bipartisan understanding — if not an outright agreement – to give campaign politics a rest for a day. But politics could intrude on this year’s ninth anniversary, as Ground Zero has moved to a prime spot in the midterm election campaign.

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Opponents of an Islamic Center to be built two blocks from Ground Zero have organized a protest timed for this year’s anniversary of the September 11 attacks. The event has made the organizers’ own allies uncomfortable, prompting criticism from New York politicians in both parties.

“I would schedule it for another time and place,” Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), an opponent of the mosque who was invited to the event, said in an interview. “It should not be a political issue on Sept. 11.”

Politicians have frequently used 9/11 imagery in advertisements, but have generally avoided playing politics on the anniversary.

A Republican candidate for governor in New York, former Rep. Rick Lazio, has made opposition to the Islamic center a centerpiece of his campaign against the Democratic frontrunner, Andrew Cuomo. Lazio was criticized for using images of the burning Twin Towers in a Web ad that he later pulled.

The use of 9/11 isn’t limited to the GOP. In Congress, Democrats supportive of the proposed Islamic center have responded to GOP criticism by stepping up calls to pass a bill providing funding for long-term medical treatment of Ground Zero responders.

The political ceasefire on Sept. 11 has always been a fragile one. The anniversary is an annual interruption to the political campaign season, whether for presidential elections in 2004 and 2008 or for New York City’s mayoral race in 2005 and 2009. The attacks themselves coincided with the 2001 Democratic mayoral primary.

In 2008, then Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) paused their campaign for the presidency to make a joint appearance at Ground Zero with New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. And this year, first lady Michelle Obama and former first lady Laura Bush are scheduled to appear together at a memorial service in Shanksville, Pa., at the crash site of United Flight 93.

King, who will attend memorial services across his district on Long Island for this year’s anniversary, said he expected politics to intrude more than in past years because of the mosque issue and because of the sharp divide over the Obama administration’s national security policy.

King said that he expected to address the political debates “in the most general way” in his appearances on the Sept. 11 but he would not make overtly partisan speeches. If he did, he said, “people would turn their backs and walk away.”

As one New York-based political consultant, Joseph Mercurio, put it: “There’s no appetite for messing with 9/11.”

The anti-mosque protest is being organized by the Freedom Defense Initiative and a group called Stop Islamization of America. A former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton, is scheduled to address the event with a video message, as is conservative activist Andrew Breitbart. But former House Speaker Newt Gingrich withdrew after he initially was listed as a speaker.

The conservative blogger and author who heads Stop Islamization of America, Pamela Geller, told The Hill the event was “not a political rally and will have no political tone or message” even as it aimed to voice opposition to the proposed mosque.

“September 11 is a solemn day, and the rally will be as solemn as the occasion warrants,” Geller said. She said the event would begin with a memorial service and that attendees had been asked not to bring inflammatory signs. “We are there to stand for those who fell on that terrible day and to declare that no victory mosque will deface the site where they fell,” Geller said. “Thus the tone will be solemn, respectful and resolute.”

Geller said the date was chosen because a developer of the Islamic center had said a groundbreaking might coincide with the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks — a claim the developer later said was “absolutely false.”

“We believed that it was important for us to reclaim the date of Sept. 11 from these deceptive Islamic supremacists,” Geller said. “We determined to take a stand to help ensure that that date will forever stand as an occasion of American mourning and American resolve — not as a commemoration of an Islamic jihad victory.”

A New York Democrat who opposes the mosque, Rep. Michael McMahon, said the planned protest was “wrong” and “should not be at that location.”

“It is still for me the most solemn day of the year,” he said. “Anyone who politicizes 9/11 should be taken to task for it.”

The event also met with unease from one of the Islamic center’s fiercest critics, Debra Burlingame, a founder of 9/11 Families for A Safe and Strong America who has denounced both Obama and Bloomberg for supporting the project.

“It is not the day I would have chosen,” said Burlingame, whose brother was a pilot on the plane that crashed into the Pentagon. “That day is always reserved to remember the people who died and to remember what happened on that day.”

Still, Burlingame declined to criticize the organizers of the protest, saying that people “are understandably very, very concerned about the prospect” of the mosque being built.

Another 9/11 families group, Where to Turn, has also come out against the rally.

The anniversary, Burlingame said, is “a really rough day for the families.”

“Families really turn inward on that day, not outward,” Burlingame said.