Three former U.S. presidents joined President Joe Biden on Saturday in a somber commemoration of the tragic events of September 11, 2001, with all four leaders making a show of unity in the face of an increasingly divided America.
Biden stood shoulder to shoulder with former Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton in New York City, where two planes crashed into the World Trade Center that sunny September morning 20 years ago. Separately, former President George W. Bush joined Vice President Kamala Harris in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, the crash site of United Airlines Flight 93, where all 44 people on board perished after passengers revolted against their hijackers.
Biden did not give a speech at any of the three events he attended, which included those at Shanksville and the Pentagon. But speaking to reporters on the sidelines, he said he felt it was crucial to visit all three sites.
“These memorials are really important,” he said. “But they’re also incredibly difficult for the people affected by them, because it brings back the moment they got the phone call, it brings back the instant they got the news, no matter how years go by.”
His main message, given in prerecorded remarks released on the eve of the anniversary, focused on the need for unity amid growing political rifts. And as if to illustrate that, he noted that during a stop at the Shanksville Volunteer Fire Department, he took photos with attendees who were wearing hats showing their support for former President Donald Trump.
“Are we going to, in the next four, five, six, 10 years, demonstrate that democracies can work, or not?” he said.
His call for national unity was echoed by Harris at Shanksville earlier in the day.
“On the days that followed September 11th, 2001, we were all reminded that unity is possible in America,” she said. “We were reminded, too, that unity is imperative in America. It is essential to our shared prosperity, our national security, and to our standing in the world.”
Bush spoke movingly of the event that defined his presidency.
"For those too young to recall that clear September day, it is hard to describe the mix of feelings we experienced,” he said. “There was horror at the scale of destruction, and awe at the bravery and kindness that rose to meet it. There was shock at the audacity of evil, and gratitude for the heroism and decency that opposed it.”
The attacks led him to launch what told Congress would be “our war on terror,” which began with the Afghan war that stretched over nearly 20 years, making it the nation’s longest war and claiming the lives of thousands of American service members and countless civilians. Biden drew the conflict in Afghanistan to a decisive end last month, withdrawing all military and diplomatic personnel.
In his remarks, Bush noted that the American people are capable of coming together in the worst of circumstances.
“In the weeks and months following the 9/11 attacks, I was proud to lead an amazing, resilient, united people,” he said. “When it comes to the unity of America, those days seem distant from our own. Malign force seems at work in our common life that turns every disagreement into an argument, and every argument into a clash of cultures. So much of our politics has become a naked appeal to anger, fear and resentment. That leaves us worried about our nation and our future together.”
In Shanksville, Harris walked through that crash site as the sunny Saturday morning dawned over this dark anniversary. She stopped to read some of the names on the memorial, before proceeding to a private wreath-laying ceremony with families of the victims.
In her remarks, she stressed that unity doesn’t mean conformity.
“In America, our diversity is our strength,” said Harris, who is the first woman to serve in that role and also the first Black American and Asian American in the job. “At the same time, we saw after 9/11 how fear can be used to sow division.”
Biden, traveling separately, walked slowly through the same field a few hours later, first lady Jill Biden by his side. Both wore black.
Former President Donald Trump, the one president who did not attend any of the formal events, instead paid a surprise visit to fire and police stations in New York City. Before those unannounced visits on Saturday, he issued a video in which he harshly criticized Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, which was marred by chaos and confusion, and by a terror attack in Kabul that that killed 13 service members.
Back in New York City at the World Trade Center, family members took turns reading aloud the names of the victims in alphabetical order. They started shortly after the 8:46 a.m. ringing of a bell to mark the time American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the North Tower — and where, 17 minutes later, United Airlines Flight 175 hit the South Tower.
Family members also offered personal memories about lost spouses, siblings, parents and grandparents — some of whom they had never met. Some wept, embraced and visibly struggled to get through all 2,977 names, which do not include the 19 hijackers who died in the attacks.
As morning turned to afternoon, the sun high in the sky overhead, they were still reading the names.