NEW YORK—In a moving and beautiful ceremony held atop Lower Manhattan's gleaming, 120-story-tall Freedom Tower, the nation commemorated the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks by raising a glass to the stable democracy of Afghanistan and to a decade of unprecedented peace and prosperity across the globe.
As a brilliant cascade of red, white, and blue fireworks lit up the skyscraper's observation deck, those in attendance reflected on the horrible tragedy that improbably, and stirringly, gave way to a harmonized Middle East and one of the most triumphant and fruitful eras in the history of the great American republic.
"A decade ago, 3,000 of our citizens perished in a senseless attack on American soil, and as I stand here today atop this magnificent edifice, celebrating the thriving republic of Afghanistan and all our allies in the now wholly stable Muslim world, it's clear the U.S. has not only risen from the ashes, it has flourished," said former U.S. president and master of ceremonies George W. Bush, who was widely applauded after 9/11 for respecting the rights of citizens at home and abroad while combating terrorism through largely peaceful means. "These last 10 years could have been divisive, turbulent, sad, hopeless, and grotesque. But instead, they were the exact opposite of those things. And for that we must all feel both blessed and truly proud."
"May we always know a tranquility as real and lasting as this!" added Bush, raising his glass high as the families of 9/11 victims and various Muslims from around the world held hands in a swaying circle around him. "To us! To all of us!"
The Freedom Tower's annual 9/11 ceremony, which has taken place every year since the architectural masterpiece's swift completion in 2004, was founded to honor the victims of the terrorist act committed by al-Qaeda, a militant Islamist group that was eradicated following the swift capture of their leader, Osama bin Laden, three months after Sept. 11, 2001.
As always, members of the multiple mosques nearby were welcomed to the ceremony with open arms, and Afghan foreign-exchange students arrived bearing gifts of flowers from their grateful nation, a reminder to many in attendance that the course of history after that crucial day could have taken a drastically different turn.
"It's truly scary to think of all the myriad ways we, as a nation, could have gone astray in the months and years following 9/11," said retired Gen. Tommy Franks, on hand to look back on his revered role in America's successful half-year intervention in Afghanistan. "But fortunately, we concentrated our efforts not on swaggering aggression, fear-stoking, preemptive strikes, or an overinvestment in defense, but on restoring our reputation around the globe, fostering good relations with Muslims, and keeping our economy strong and robust."
"Of course, the tragedy of 9/11 could have been avoided entirely if there had been any warnings whatsoever from the intelligence community that such a thing was going to happen," Franks added. "Unfortunately, as we later learned, there were none."
In attendance at the tasteful ceremony were hundreds of U.S. service members currently stationed at home awaiting orders of any imminent threats, respectful and nonpartisan members of the national news media, and trusted foreign allies such as Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez, the second female president of Afghanistan, Malalai Joya, and Iranian president Mir-Hossein Mousavi.
Former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who retired quietly from the political scene in 2002, was also on hand, opting as always not to give a speech, saying that such a gesture would be "a selfish exploitation of the events of that tragic day."
Following the last of many toasts, attendees gathered in the Freedom Tower's Dick Cheney Memorial Auditorium to watch journalist Daniel Pearl's special retrospective on the successful 2002 prosecution of all known terror suspects through fair and legal trials. Former president Bush concluded the ceremony with a few short words.
"To think, what could have been merely a grim, pathetic reminder of our own pain and subsequent failure has instead been reclaimed by this great nation as a reminder of our success, our resiliency, and our core American values of decency and love," said Bush, who departed later that night for a climate change conference in China. "Thank God we had the courage, intelligence, and foresight to react the way we did after the worst day in American history."
"And thank God we didn't make a huge mistake by needlessly invading a country like Iraq," Bush added. "If we had, I guarantee you none of us would be standing here today."