NEW YORK — Americans paused again Tuesday to mark the 11th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks with familiar ceremony, but also a sense that it's time to move forward after a decade of remembrance.
As in past years, thousands gathered at the World Trade Center site in New York, the Pentagon and Shanksville, Pa., to read the names of nearly 3,000 victims killed in the worst terror attack in U.S. history. President Barack Obama was to attend the Pentagon memorial, and Vice President Joe Biden was to speak in Pennsylvania.
But many felt that last year's 10th anniversary was an emotional turning point for public mourning of the attacks. For the first time, elected officials weren't speaking at the ceremony, which often allowed them a solemn turn in the spotlight, but raised questions about the public and private Sept. 11. Fewer families attended the ceremonies this year, and some cities canceled their remembrances altogether.
"I feel much more relaxed" this year, said Jane Pollicino, who came to ground zero Tuesday morning to remember her husband, who was killed at the trade center. "After the ninth anniversary, that next day, you started building up to the 10th year. This feels a lot different, in that regard. It's another anniversary that we can commemorate in a calmer way, without that 10-year pressure."
As bagpipes played at the year-old Sept. 11 memorial in New York, family clutching balloons, flowers and photos of their loved ones bowed their heads in silence at 8:46 a.m., the moment that the first hijacked jetliner crashed into the trade center's north tower, and again to mark the crashes into the second tower, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field.
President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama observed the moment in a ceremony on the White House's south lawn, and then laid a white floral wreath at the Pentagon, above a concrete slab that said "Sept. 11, 2001 — 937 am."
Victims' families in New York began the solemn, familiar ritual of tearfully reading the names of nearly 3,000 killed, with personal messages to their lost loved ones.
"Rick, can you hear your name as the roll is called again? On this sacred ground where your dust settled?" said Richard Blood, whose son, Richard Middleton Blood Jr., died in the trade center's south tower. "If only those who hear your name could know what a loving son and beautiful person you grew to be. I love you, son, and miss you terribly."
Thousands had attended the ceremony in New York in previous years, including last year's milestone 10th anniversary. About 1,000 gathered by Tuesday morning, making paper rubbings of their loved ones' names etched onto the Sept. 11 memorial.
Commuters rushed out of the subway and fewer police barricades were in place than in past years in the lower Manhattan neighborhood surrounding ground zero. More than 4 million people have visited the memorial in the past year, becoming more of a public space than a closed-off construction site. On Tuesday, much of downtown Manhattan bustled like a regular weekday, except for clusters of police and emergency vehicles on the borders of the site.
Families had a mixed reaction to the changing ceremony, which kept politicians away from the microphone in New York for the first time. Charles G. Wolf, whose wife, Katherine, was killed at the trade center, said: "We've gone past that deep, collective public grief." But Pollicino said it's important that politicians still attend the ceremony.
"There's something missing if they're not here at all," she said. "Now, all of a sudden, it's 'for the families.' This happened to our country — it didn't happen only to me."
And Joe Torres, who put in 16-hour days in ground zero's "pit" in the days after the attacks, cleaning up tons of debris, said another year has changed nothing for him.
"The 11th year, for me, it's the same as if it happened yesterday. It could be 50 years from now, and to me, it'll be just as important as year one, or year five or year ten."
Political leaders still are welcome to attend the ground zero ceremony, and they are expected at the other commemorations, as well.
The Obamas planned later to visit wounded soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. The U.S. terror attacks were followed by wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, where the U.S. military death toll years ago surpassed the 9/11 victim count. At least 1,987 U.S. troops have died in Afghanistan and 4,475 in Iraq, according to the Pentagon.
Allied military forces marked the anniversary at a short ceremony at NATO's headquarters in Kabul, Afghanistan,with a tribute to more than 3,000 foreign troops killed in the decade-long war.
"Eleven years on from that day there should be no doubt that our dedication to this commitment, that commitment that was seared into our souls that day so long ago, remains strong and unshaken," said Marine Gen. John Allen, the top commander of U.S. and coalition troops.
Scores gathered at the Flight 93 National Memorial in western Pennsylvania, where the fourth hijacked plane crashed into a Pennsylvania field. Biden and Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar were to speak at the ceremony for the flight's 40 victims.
Other ceremonies were held across the country — from New York's Long Island, where hundreds wrote messages to their loved ones on a memorial, to Boston, where more than 200 people with ties to Massachusetts were remembered. But some cities scaled back — the suburb of Glen Rock, N.J., where 11 people were killed, did not hold a memorial this year for the first time. Past events often ran for several hours, with speeches, music and the laying of roses in front of a granite memorial built with remnants of trade center steel.
"It was appropriate for this year — not that the losses will ever be forgotten," said Brad Jordan, chairman of a community group that helps victims' families. "But we felt it was right to shift the balance a bit from the observance of loss to a commemoration of how the community came together to heal."
The anniversary led to a brief pause in the presidential campaign as Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney pulled their negative ads and avoided campaign rallies. Romney shook hands with firefighters at Chicago's O'Hare Airport and was flying to Nevada to address the National Guard, whose members deployed after the attacks. His running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, had no scheduled public events.
The memorial foundation announced this summer that politicians wouldn't be included this year, to separate politics from the ceremony. But others said keeping elected officials off the rostrum smacked of ... politics. And several said they were unwilling to let go.
"Coming here, it's like ripping off a Band-Aid," said Yasmin Leon, whose sister was killed at the trade center. "You rip it off and the wound is opened again. But you keep coming back anyway."
And at ground zero, family members reading their loved ones' names said the passage of time did not change their grief.
"Mark, they say time heals all wounds. It's not true, Mark," said Joanne Hindy, whose nephew died in the north tower. "There's a void in all our lives because this that will never ever be filled or healed."
Associated Press writers Verena Dobnik, Meghan Barr and Alex Katz in New York, Wayne Parry in Atlantic City, N.J., and Amir Shah in Afghanistan contributed to this report.