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At ground zero, can there be a politics-free 9/11?

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NEW YORK — The Sept. 11 anniversary ceremony at ground zero has been stripped of politicians this year. But can it ever be stripped of politics?

For the first time, elected officials won't speak Tuesday at an occasion that has allowed them a solemn turn in the spotlight. The change was made in the name of sidelining politics, but some have rapped it as a political move in itself.

It's a sign of the entrenched sensitivity of the politics of Sept. 11, even after a decade of commemorating the attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field. From the first anniversary in 2002, the date has been limned with questions about how – or even whether – to try to separate the Sept. 11 that is about personal loss from the 9/11 that reverberates through public life.

The answers are complicated for Debra Burlingame, whose brother Charles was the pilot of the hijacked plane that crashed into the Pentagon. She feels politicians' involvement can lend gravity to the remembrances, but she empathizes with the reasons for silencing officeholders at the New York ceremony this year.

"It is the one day, out of 365 days a year, where, when we invoke the term '9/11,' we mean the people who died and the events that happened," rather than the political and cultural layers the phrase has accumulated, said Ms. Burlingame, who's on the board of the organization that announced the change in plans this year.

"So I think the idea that it's even controversial that politicians wouldn't be speaking is really rather remarkable."

Remarkable, perhaps, but a glimpse through the political prism that splits so much surrounding Sept. 11 into different lights.

Officeholders from the mayor to presidents have been heard at the New York ceremony, reading texts ranging from parts of the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address to poems by John Donne and Langston Hughes.

But in July, the National Sept. 11 Memorial and Museum – led by Mayor Michael Bloomberg as its board chairman – announced that this year's version would include only relatives reading victims' names. Politicians still may attend.

The point, memorial President Joe Daniels said, was "honoring the victims and their families in a way free of politics" in an election year.

Some victims' relatives and commentators praised the decision. "It is time" to extricate Sept. 11 from politics, the Boston Globe wrote in an editorial.

But others said keeping politicians off the rostrum smacked of ... politics.

The move came amid friction between the memorial foundation and the governors of New York and New Jersey over progress on the memorial museum. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, have signaled their displeasure by calling on federal officials to give the memorial a financial and technical hand.

Some victims' relatives see the no-politicians anniversary ceremony as retaliation. Both states' governors have traditionally been invited to participate.

"Banning the governors of New York and New Jersey from speaking is the ultimate political decision," said one relatives' group, led by retired Deputy Fire Chief Jim Riches. His firefighter son and namesake was killed responding to the burning World Trade Center.

Spokesmen for Mr. Christie and Mr. Cuomo said the governors were fine with the memorial organizers' decision.

In other 9/11-related news:

The federal government on Monday added about 50 types of cancer to the list of Sept. 11 World Trade Center-related illnesses that will be covered by a program to pay for health coverage.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety, which announced the change, said last June that it favored the expansion of the existing $4.3 billion Sept. 11 health program. That move followed years of lobbying by construction workers, firefighters, police officers, office cleaners and others who fell ill in the decade after the terror attack, which destroyed the 110-story twin towers, spewing toxic dust.

Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, who spoke Monday at the Flight 93 National Memorial in western Pennsylvania, said the Shanksville-area field "is the final resting place of American patriots." Mr. Panetta visited the memorial Monday for the first time, paying his respects to the 40 passengers and crew members who died during the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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