Marking two decades since 9/11 on Saturday looked, in many ways, like the years before: Church bells ringing in lower Manhattan at the moment of the first strike. Families of the nearly 3,000 killed that day mourning at the memorial and graveside. Survivors telling their stories of living with guilt and heartache.
Conflicting with this year’s rituals, though, is the national reckoning with the chaotic end to America’s longest war.
“It’s hard because you hoped that this would just be a different time and a different world. But sometimes history starts to repeat itself, and not in the best of ways,” Thea Trinidad poignantly told the Associated Press. Trinidad, whose dad died on 9/11, read some of the names of the dead at ground zero Saturday.
This year’s 9/11 anniversary intersects with the Taliban easily regaining control of Afghanistan after the frenetic US withdrawal this summer. It comes as Afghans who fled their home just weeks ago await their fate in airbases around the world, the images and videos of people clinging to planes leaving Kabul’s airport still fresh. It comes as the US continues to botch airstrikes, as some of the last US military members killed in Afghanistan were infants when the war began, and as what’s called the war on terror continues unabated. Afghans who helped the US through its longest war fear they’ve been left behind. Women in Afghanistan now live under constant threat of imminent violence.
President Joe Biden posted an address to social media on Sept. 10, touching on national unity, the extraordinary losses of that day, the personal pain suffered by a friend whose son died in the south tower, and the anti-Muslim sentiment that permeated the nation after the attacks and continues in many ways to this day.
The themes Biden hit on could have applied nearly any other anniversary year — including his remarks about the war on terror.
“Unity and service, the 9/11 generation stepping up to serve and protect in the face of terror, to get those terrorists who were responsible to show everyone seeking to do harm to America that we will hunt you down and we will make you pay,” Biden said. “That will never stop.”
In New York City, the traditional reading of the names of people killed began after chimes played, church bells rang out, and a moment of silence observed at 8:46 a.m., the time the first plane hit.
Family members tearfully read the names, stopping at the end to note their own relatives and deliver small acknowledgments and remembrances.
"There were so many events I wish you were a part of, like my wedding,” one woman said after reading her father’s name.
The reading was interspersed with small breaks, one featuring Bruce Springsteen singing “I’ll See You in My Dreams.”
“You missed every single milestone in her life over the past two decades, but we continue to move on with love in our hearts,” one mother said about her husband missing his daughter’s life — including her graduation from college.
“We love you and we miss you, Uncle Peter. Thank you for being my godfather, and thank you for protecting this country,” the nephew of Peter Bielfeld, a New York City firefighter, said.
Biden visited the National September 11th Memorial in New York City before heading to the Flight 93 National Memorial in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, and the Pentagon on Saturday.
As the president made his way to Shanksville, a memorial event was already underway to honor the victims of Flight 93, which crashed after passengers and crew members attempted to regain control.
The names of the 40 people who died were read aloud, some by family members, with a bell chiming for each person.
After a series of speakers, former president George W. Bush — who was president on 9/11 and led the country into the Afghanistan War decades ago — delivered a speech in which he reflected on 9/11 and how Americans responded that day.
“It is hard to describe the mix of feelings that we experienced,” he said. “There was horror at the scale of destruction, and awe at the bravery and kindness that rose to meet it.”
He also, notably, warned of domestic extremism.
“We have seen growing evidence that the dangers to our country can come, not only across borders, but from violence that gathers within,” Bush said. “There is little cultural overlap between violent extremists abroad and violent extremists at home, but in their disdain for pluralism, in their disregard for human life, in their determination to befoul national symbols, they are children of the same foul spirit, and it is our continuing duty to confront them.”
Both Bush and Vice President Kamala Harris, who spoke after him, made an appeal for unity in their remarks.
“After 9/11, we saw how fear could be used to sow division,” Harris said. “In a time of outright terror, we turned toward each other. In the face of a stranger, we saw a neighbor and a friend. That time reminded us the significance and the strength of our unity as Americans.”
In Washington, DC, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Army Gen. Mark Milley presided over a ceremony. Family members placed flowers and wreaths on and near memorial benches bearing the names of those who died.
For Biden, the attacks on 9/11 have deeply defined the trajectory of his political career over the past 20 years. He served as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2001 and was deeply involved in the country’s response. On the day of the attacks, Biden foreshadowed what would eventually become one of the defining issues of his presidency.
“This cannot be dealt with overnight,” Biden told ABC News reporters blocks away from the Capitol. “It’s an incredible tragedy, but it’s the new threat of the 21st century.”
The day after the attacks, he joined 98 other senators who voted to authorize “all necessary and appropriate force” to retaliate against those behind 9/11. In a speech at the University of Delaware on Sept. 19, 2001, Biden told students not to worry about a war in response to the attacks.
“This is not a war in the traditional or conventional sense. You’re not going to see hundreds of thousands of military amassing, ground troops invading, and a call-up of all of you,” Biden said.
Two decades later, Biden has attempted to reel in a sprawling military response that’s spanned three presidential administrations. Last April, Biden announced that the US would withdraw from Afghanistan, arguing that the US had completed its mission of ousting al-Qaeda after the attacks.
“We no longer had a clear purpose in an open-ended mission in Afghanistan,” Biden said in a speech marking the end of the US withdrawal from the country. “After 20 years of war in Afghanistan, I refuse to send another generation of America’s sons and daughters to fight a war that should have ended long ago.”