WASHINGTON — From the heart of the shocking terror strike on America, President Barack Obama will try to bury the memory of Osama bin Laden by honoring those who died in the fiery Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center. In private talks with families and a somber ceremony at ground zero, Obama is out to let New York have its own moment of justice.
Obama heads to New York City on Thursday after sharply rejecting calls for him to release photos of a slain bin Laden so the world could see some proof of death. The president said he would not risk giving propaganda to extremists or gloat by publicizing grotesque photos of a terrorist leader shot in the head.
To those who keep on doubting, Obama said, "You will not see bin Laden walking on this earth again."
His government, meanwhile, insisted the shooting of an unarmed bin Laden during a daring raid in Pakistan was lawful and in national self-defense. Officials who were briefed on the operation told The Associated Press that the Navy SEALs who stormed bin Laden's compound shot and killed him after they saw him appear to lunge for a weapon.
Obama's New York visit is intended to have a measured tone — not a bookend to President George W. Bush's bullhorn moment, but more somber and private.
White House spokesman Jay Carney called it a "cathartic moment for the American people."
Obama does not even have scheduled remarks during his trip. Yet it is likely Obama will make comments during his time at the 9/11 memorial, where he will lay a wreath.
Obama will visit a bustling construction site that bears little resemblance to the pit that became ground zero in the months after Sept. 11, 2001. The emerging skyscraper informally known as Freedom Tower is more than 60 stories high now. Mammoth fountains and reflecting pools mark the footprints of the fallen twin towers.
Thousands of people climbed street signs and waved flags in celebration after hearing that bin Laden was killed in Pakistan on Monday, which was Sunday night in New York.
Jim Riches, whose firefighter son was among the nearly 3,000 people killed at the World Trade Center, planned to meet with the president on Thursday.
"I just want to thank him, hug him and thank him and shake his hand," Riches said. "Father to father. Thank you for doing this for me."
The White House said Obama will meet privately with families of those killed in the attacks and with the emergency workers who rushed to help.
The president must also handle the moment without being seen as overly celebrating bin Laden's death or aiming to boost his own standing in victory.
"The president is coming here because this is the place where you can really feel what happened that day," said Joelle Tripoul, a tourist visiting Manhattan from Marseilles, France. "And I think he wants to come to say that bin Laden's death marks the end of this stage of our human journey after 9/11."
Al-Qaida terrorists hijacked jets and flew two of them into the World Trade Center's twin towers. Both buildings collapsed, trapping thousands inside and also claiming the lives of firefighters and others who had rushed to help them. A third plane slammed into the Pentagon. Officials have speculated that a fourth plane had been heading for the U.S. Capitol or perhaps even the White House when it crashed in Pennsylvania.
A few days later, Bush stood amid the rubble and spoke through a bullhorn. When one worker yelled, "I can't hear you," the president responded: "I can hear you! The rest of the world hears you! And the people — and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon!"
All these years later, Obama said this is no time for gloating. "We don't need to spike the football," he said as he told CBS he would keep bin Laden's death photos sealed.
Obama invited Bush to join him Thursday, but the former president declined.
Heightened security put in place in response to the killing of bin Laden will remain for Obama's visit. Police officials said there are no specific threats against the city but also say they assume bin Laden's "disciples" might try to avenge his death with a terror attack.
"The ceremony will provide some closure to a horrific event," said Harold Schaitberger, president of the International Association of Firefighters, who was invited by the White House to attend Obama's ground zero event.
Associated Press writers Verena Dobnik and Colleen Long and videojournalist Bonny Ghosh in New York and AP writer Sam Hananel in Washington contributed to this report.