By Jeremy Herb - 09/11/12 03:10 PM EDT
President Obama marked the 11th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks Tuesday morning during a ceremony at the Pentagon memorial, where he told the families who lost loved ones there that the tragic day brought the country together.
“Eleven years ago, memorial services were held for Americans of different races and creeds, backgrounds and beliefs. And yet, instead of turning us against each other, tragedy has brought us together,” Obama said. “I've always said that our fight is with al Qaeda and its affiliates, not with Islam or any other religion. This country was built as a beacon of freedom and tolerance. That’s what's made us strong, now and forever.”
Obama arrived with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey in the memorial garden, and he placed a wreath of white flowers on a stand above a stone engraved with the date and time of the attack, according to the pool report. An American flag was draped over the spot where the Pentagon was hit.
Dempsey and Panetta spoke before the president. Panetta said that the nation is safer today than it was on the morning of 9/11.
"No one attacks the United States of America," Panetta said, according to the pool report. "In trying to attack our strengths, the terrorists unleashed our greatest strengths — the spirit and will to fight back."
Obama noted this was the 11th time that the families of victims have gathered to remember their loved ones, as the nation has mourned with them.
“But no matter how many years pass, no matter how many times we come together on this hallowed ground, know this — that you will never be alone,” Obama said. “Your loved ones will never be forgotten. They will endure in the hearts of our nation, because through their sacrifice, they helped us make the America we are today — an America that has emerged even stronger.”
Obama said that while a majority of the Americans killed on 9/11 were not veterans, the attacks inspired more than 5 million Americans to “wear that uniform” and join the military. And he noted that the war in Iraq is now over and that by the end of 2014 the war in Afghanistan, the longest in U.S. history, will end as well.
“When the history books are written, the true legacy of 9/11 will not be one of fear or hate or division,” Obama said. “It will be a safer world, a stronger nation and a people more united than ever before.”
Before attending the Pentagon ceremony, the president observed a moment of silence at 8:45 a.m., when the first plane hit the World Trade Center’s north tower.
On their way back from the Pentagon, Obama and the first lady made an unscheduled stop at Arlington National Cemetery, where they visited the graves in Section 60, for those killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to the pool report.
At the Capitol, members of Congress are holding a remembrance ceremony, and Vice President Biden is speaking at the Flight 93 memorial in Pennsylvania.
Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney will mark the anniversary during a speech Tuesday at the National Guard Association Convention in Reno, Nev.
—This story was updated at 11:43 a.m.