Americans paused in sorrow and reflection Sunday on the anniversary of the deadliest terrorist attack on U.S. soil, the September 11, 2001, crashing of four passenger jets hijacked by al-Qaida terrorists that killed nearly 3,000 people.
President Joe Biden marked the moment in the solemnity of a ceremony at the Pentagon, where the terrorists flew an airliner into one of the five sides of the Defense Department building just outside Washington, killing 184 people.
“Twenty-one years and we kept that promise to never forget,” Biden told people covered by umbrellas on a rainy day. “The American story changed that day, but we’ll never change the character of the nation.”
He said the country’s resolve against foreign terrorists “never once faltered,” citing the U.S. commando attack in 2011 that killed 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden in Pakistan and the more recent drone attack Biden ordered to kill the new al-Qaida leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, in Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul.
Biden said the United States “will never hesitate to do what it takes to defend the American people.”
More than 2,700 people were killed when two of the hijacked airliners were flown into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York.
Vice President Kamala Harris and her husband Doug Emhoff visited ground zero in New York for the day’s commemoration, witnessing the traditional reading of the names of all the victims of the attack, while Biden’s wife, first lady Jill Biden, visited a memorial at Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
Forty people were killed in a rural area of the eastern state of Pennsylvania after a plane crashed into a field. Passengers had stormed the cockpit of the airliner and futilely tried to overpower hijackers who had commandeered the plane and were trying to fly to Washington for another attack on the national capital.
Other communities around the U.S. marked the day with candlelight vigils, interfaith services and other commemorations. Some Americans joined volunteer projects on a day that is federally recognized as both Patriot Day and a National Day of Service and Remembrance.
The attacks spurred a “war on terror” on al-Qaida training grounds in Afghanistan, a war that lasted two decades before Biden withdrew the last remaining Americans troops a year ago in a chaotic retreat as Taliban insurgents took control of the country, much as they had before the 9/11 attacks.
The attack 21 years ago spurred a unified, national sense of patriotic resolve in the U.S. against a common enemy, the terrorist group that executed the unimagined assault.
Now, even though many Americans paused for a moment of reflection on the attack’s anniversary, the country has long since become politically divided on a host of domestic issues, such as election integrity, abortion, climate change, voting rights and more.
Meanwhile, the country has turned away from direct participation in foreign warfare even as the U.S. government has been sending billions of dollars in armaments to Ukraine to help Kyiv’s fight against Russia’s invasion, now in its seventh month.
At home, the U.S. has instead been faced with a growing threat of domestic violence, sometimes from right-wing extremists angered by former President Donald Trump’s 2020 reelection defeat by Biden and sometimes from street protests against police treatment of racial minorities.
Biden observed that in 2001 after the terrorist attacks, “We dug deep, we cared about each other, a true sense of national unity.”
Now, he said, “There’s nothing this nation can’t accomplish when we stand together. It’s not enough to stand up for democracy once a year. We’ll secure our democracy with one another.”