From an urban memorial to a remote field to the heart of of the nation's military might, President Joe Biden on Saturday paid tribute at three hallowed places of grief and remembrance to honor the lives lost two decades ago in the 9/11 terror attacks.
The solemn day of commemoration offered frequent reminders for Americans of a time when they united in the face of unimaginable tragedy. That fading spirit of 9/11 was invoked most forcefully by the president at the time of the attacks, George W. Bush, who said, “That is the America I know,” in stark contrast to the bitterly divided nation Biden now leads.
Biden left the speech-making to others, paying his respects at the trio of sites in New York, Pennsylvania and outside Washington where four hijacked planes crashed on Sept. 11, 2001, killing nearly 3,000 people, shattering the nation’s sense of security and launching the country into two decades of warfare.
Joe Biden Embraces Message of Unity on 9/11 Anniversary
Biden wiped away a tear as he stood in silence at the site where the World Trade Center towers fell, and looked up at the haunting sound of a jet plane under clear blue skies reminiscent of that fateful day.
In a grassy field in Pennsylvania, Biden comforted family members gathered at a stone boulder near Shanksville that marked where passengers brought down a hijacked plane that had been headed for the nation's capital. At the Pentagon, Biden and his wife, Jill, took a moment of silence before a wreath studded with white, purple and red flowers on display in front of the memorial benches that mark the victims of the attack at the military headquarters.
Delivering Bud Light and appreciation to the Shanksville Volunteer Fire Department, which responded to the crash of United Flight 93, Biden praised Bush's comments in his only public remarks of the day, saying the Republican “made a really good speech today – genuinely," and wondered aloud what those who died that day would think of today's rancor.
Gesturing to a cross-shaped memorial made of steel from the twin towers adjacent to the firehouse, Biden reflected: “I’m thinking what, what what would the people who died, what would they be thinking. Would they think this makes sense for us to be doing this kind of thing where you ride down the street and someone has a sign saying ‘f- so-and-so?’”
It was a reference to an explicit sign attacking Biden last week in New Jersey as he toured storm damage that was displayed by supporters of former President Donald Trump. Biden expressed incredulity at recent comments by Trump, whom he accused of abandoning the nation's ideals during his time in office.
“Everyone says, ‘Biden, why do you keep insisting on trying to bring the country together?’’’ the president told reporters. “That’s the thing that’s going to affect our well-being more than anything else.”
At ground zero in New York City, Biden stood side by side with former Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton at the National September 11 Memorial as the names of the dead were read aloud by their loved ones. Each man wore a blue ribbon and held his hand over his heart as a procession marched a flag through the memorial before hundreds of people, some carrying photos of loved ones lost in the attacks.
Alluding to domestic turmoil, including the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol, Bush said that “the dangers to our country can come not only across borders but from violence that gathers within.” He added that while they have little cultural similarity to the 9/11 attackers, “they are children of the same foul spirit, and it is our continuing duty to confront them.”
Vice President Kamala Harris also spoke at the Flight 93 National Memorial, echoing the theme of unity as she praised the courage of those passengers and the resilience of Americans who came together in the days after the attacks.
“In a time of outright terror, we turned toward each other,” Harris said. “If we do the hard work of working together as Americans, if we remain united in purpose, we will be prepared for whatever comes next.”
Biden was a U.S. senator when hijackers commandeered four planes and carried out the attacks. He was Obama’s vice president in 2011 when the country observed the 10th anniversary of the strikes. Saturday’s commemoration was his first as commander in chief.
It is now Biden who shoulders the responsibility borne by his predecessors to prevent another strike. He must do that against fears of a rise in terrorism after the hasty U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, where those who planned the Sept. 11 attacks were sheltered.
In remarks at the firehouse Biden defended the withdrawal, which culminated with a massive airlift to evacuate more than 110,000 Americans and allies — but still resulted in many being left behind for an uncertain future under Taliban rule.
“Could al-Qaida come back? Yeah. But guess what, it’s already back other places," Biden said. "What’s the strategy? Every place where al-Qaida is, we’re going to invade and have troops stay in? Cmon.”
Rather than deliver formal remarks, Biden released a taped address late Friday about the anniversary in which he spoke about the “true sense of national unity” that emerged after the attacks, seen in “heroism everywhere — in places expected and unexpected.”
Biden became the fourth president to console the nation on the anniversary of that dark day, one that has shaped many of the most consequential domestic and foreign policy decisions made by the chief executives over the past two decades.
Trump skipped the official 9/11 memorial ceremonies and instead visited a fire station and police precinct in New York, where he laced into Biden over his withdrawal from Afghanistan and repeated lies about the 2020 election as he paid tribute to New York’s first responders.
Bush was reading a book to Florida schoolchildren when the planes slammed into the World Trade Center. He spent that day being kept out of Washington for security reasons — a decision then-Sen. Biden urged him to reconsider, the current president has written — and then delivered a brief, halting speech that night from the White House to a terrified nation.
The terrorist attack would define Bush's presidency. The following year, he chose Ellis Island as the location to deliver his first anniversary address, the Statue of Liberty over his shoulder as he pledged, “What our enemies have begun, we will finish.”
By the time Obama spoke at the 10th anniversary, attack mastermind Osama bin Laden was dead, killed in a May 2011 Navy SEAL raid. Though the nation remained entangled overseas, and vigilant against threats, the anniversary became more about healing.
Trump pledged to get the U.S. out of Afghanistan, but his words during his first Sept. 11 anniversary ceremony in 2017 were a vivid warning to terrorists, telling “these savage killers that there is no dark corner beyond our reach, no sanctuary beyond our grasp, and nowhere to hide anywhere on this very large earth.”
How 9/11 shaped Joe Biden’s approach to the politics of national tragedy
Like everyone else on Sept. 11, 2001, Joe Biden found himself in a state of confusion when word trickled in that a plane had struck one of the iconic Twin Towers in New York City. He was on his way from Wilmington to Washington, D.C., anticipating a rather mundane commute and a rather mundane Senate confirmation hearing for John Walters, President George W. Bush’s pick for the Office of National Drug Control Policy.
In those subsequent moments, Biden made his entrance into a dark and difficult chapter in U.S. history, one that would see him play an instrumental role in the U.S. response over the course of two decades. In the process, he gave the American public one of the first real glimpses of a personality trait that has come to define his career in politics and his conduct in the presidency. The then-Senator’s first inclination in the milieu of fear and chaos was that he had the responsibility, perch, and unique skill set to comfort; and that he needed to find a way to speak to the public.
Biden has always prided himself on his oratorical skills, which he had honed over time despite a childhood stutter. Sometimes, they worked to his benefit — like when he was hailed early in his career as the leader of a new generation of Democrats and presided over the Judiciary Committee during critical Supreme Court nomination hearings. Sometimes, his confidence in them was betrayed by the results, like when he went on a riff about Barack Obama’s articulateness during the 2008 primaries, or the countless other moments when he said something off the cuff that he later had to clarify.
When he stepped off the train that morning at roughly 10 a.m., Biden rushed the few blocks between Union Station and the Capitol. Off in the distance, smoke was rising in the air across the Potomac. Another plane, American Airlines Flight 77, had crashed into the Pentagon. A Capitol police officer stopped him at the entrance, refusing to let him into the building.
Margaret Aitken, Biden’s press secretary at the time, met up with him on his way to the Capitol steps. She recalled Biden trying to find a way to get in front of the C-SPAN cameras on the Senate floor in order to say something that the public could find reassuring. “He wanted our country and the rest of the world to know that our government was still operational. That was extremely important to him at that time,” Aitken recalled.
Part of Biden’s desire to speak that morning was driven by the fact that the other national figures couldn’t. Bush was still being kept away from D.C. for his safety, having spent the morning in a classroom in Florida promoting education and literacy. Then-Vice President Dick Cheney was in the presidential bunker. Biden, who had recently become the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was arguably the most senior foreign policy figure not in the executive branch.
But those who have worked with Biden note he also believes firmly in his capacities to project calm and empathy in moments where those two notions seem lacking. Whereas some politicians find it difficult to comfort the afflicted, Biden has taken pride in his ability to do so. He has eulogized colleagues who have passed, given national addresses around moments of gun violence, and commemorated grim milestones around the Covid-19 pandemic. It is a role not every politician can play. And, as the day of 9/11 unfolded, it was not clear if Biden, or anyone, could either.
Despite Biden’s protestations to Capitol police, he would never be allowed onto the Senate floor. Aides recalled, at that moment, that Biden looked at the jumble of lawmakers, staffers and tourists standing in shock after evacuating the Capitol and began going up to people individually, grabbing their shoulders, and sharing the message he wanted to share with the cameras: “We're going to be OK, we're going to be OK.”
Former Rep. Bob Brady, a Pennsylvania Democrat, was with Biden that day. The two of them tried to convince other members of the legislative branch to team up and push for access to the Capitol to gavel Congress back into session, if only to signal that the government was unbowed. But after hours of trying, they gave up.
“He said, ‘you got a car?’ I said, ‘yeah I got a car,” Brady told POLITICO. So the two lawmakers, a member of Brady’s staff and Biden’s brother, Jimmy — who had been in D.C. that day and made his way over to the Capitol — piled in a car together to head home.
On the way to the car, Biden ran into Linda Douglass, the Chief Capitol Hill Correspondent for ABC News at the time. She had recently been evacuated herself and was looking for a place to do a live shot and, more importantly, any senior government official to talk to.
”It was just such a relief to see somebody of his stature and seniority, able to talk to the country, which was in a state of terror and confusion,” said Douglass, who went on to become an aide to the Obama-Biden 2008 campaign. “That is the part of it that was significant to me: there were no other voices. There were no other leaders who were able to start reassuring the country.”
Back at the studio, ABC news anchor Peter Jennings asked Biden about al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden, who was already being discussed as the mastermind behind the attacks. “The tendency in these circumstances is to be too focused on one man, one idea, one prospect … I think it’s much too early for us to make those kinds of judgments,” Biden said. “This cannot be dealt with overnight. It’s an incredible tragedy. But it’s a new threat of the twenty-first century, and we will find a way to do it. ”
After the interview, Biden and Brady hopped in the car, jumped into the heavy afternoon traffic and took what Brady remembers as a somber and quiet ride to Wilmington. The men listened to the news the entire ride, talked to family members and spent most of the ride in shock. “We just didn’t know what to think about it, what to do about it,” Brady recalled. He says the men sobbed and said a prayer any time there was an update on how many had been killed that day.
Close to Baltimore, Biden’s phone rang again. It was President Bush thanking “him for his remarks,” Brady said. The president also told Biden the intelligence community was telling him to stay away from the nation’s capital. Biden pushed back, “Mr. President, come back to Washington.”
Brady dropped the Bidens off at the Wilmington train station, where Biden’s own car had been all day. The next morning, Biden held a staff meeting back at the Capitol, where he found himself consoling young aides with a speech that Aitken says she told him more people needed to hear. So, they called the producers of the Oprah Winfrey Show.
“I've literally gotten heads of state on the phone quicker than Oprah,” Aitken says with a laugh. Her show was preempted by 9/11 coverage for days and Biden would appear on Monday, the 17th, nearly a week later.
“We have fought evil. We have preserved our constitutional rights, our values and everything that’s so important to America,” Biden read before remarking himself, “They do not have the capacity to take this nation down. They don’t have the capacity.”
“Don’t let yourself get carried away. What happened was horrible. Some have called September 11 a ‘second day of infamy,’” Biden told the students. “Some are telling you that it will change our way of life. I’m here to tell you it will not — cannot, must not — change our way of life. It is the beginning of the end of the way of life for international terrorist organizations — not ours.”
Biden would spend the next days, weeks, months and years helping to craft the policy responses to 9/11. His “focus in foreign policy shifted to Central Asia and the Middle East. And it should have,” recalled Mike Haltzel, the Democratic Staff director of the European Affairs subcommittee.
He made political calculations in the moment that would come back to complicate his career. He spoke highly of President Bush and worked closely with the Bush administration. He offered his support for the use of military force in Iraq, giving the White House the type of bipartisan buy-in to confidently launch the invasion.
But aides also say that Biden, over his four trips to the region, became disillusioned with the outcomes of 9/11, not just with the war in Iraq but also with the efforts to build a semblance of a nation state in Afghanistan.
“For years, it'd been more, ‘this is a f---ed up situation. The Bush administration is f---ing it up. And if I could just sit down with Karzai, maybe I could figure out a way of getting it un-f---ed,’” said Jonah Blank, the policy director for South and Southeast Asia on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee from 1999 to 2011. That, said Blank, led to “‘Okay, I've sat down with Karzai and no, he's not part of the solution. He is part of the problem. I just don't see a way of breaking through this. I don't see a way of getting to the other side on this.'”
Just under 20 years after he stepped off the train, Biden found himself in a position to do something about that disillusionment. As president, he oversaw the full withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan by the end of August, despite immense political pressure to reconsider that decision. It was a bloody, chaotic mess of a withdrawal, one that raised serious questions about his approach to the region. To fend off the doubts about it — and to honor the U.S. military casualties that came with it — Biden followed his instinct once more: he gave a major national address to the nation.
Biden made a promise to avenge the deaths of the 13 American service members killed by a suicide bomber in Kabul in the final days of the drawdown.
“As we close 20 years of war and strife and pain and sacrifice,” he said, “it’s time to look to the future, not the past — to a future that’s safer, to a future that’s more secure, to a future that honors those who served and all those who gave what President Lincoln called their ‘last full measure of devotion.’”
Obama, Queen Elizabeth, U.S. senators remember 9/11
Former presidents, world leaders and U.S. lawmakers reflect on the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.
BILL CLINTON, 42nd U.S. PRESIDENT
"America will never forget those who lost their lives, those who risked or gave their own lives to save others, and those whose lives were forever changed 20 years ago. We owe it to all of them to come together again with unity, hope, compassion, and resolve."
BARACK OBAMA, 44TH U.S. PRESIDENT
"Today we honor the nearly 3,000 men, women, and children who died on September 11, 2001, and even more who lost their lives in service to our country in the two decades since. We reaffirm our commitment to keep a sacred trust with their families — including the children who lost parents, and who have demonstrated such extraordinary resilience. But this anniversary is also about reflecting on what we’ve learned in the 20 years since that awful morning."
U.S. SENATOR JAMES RISCH
"Twenty years later, it is still hard to comprehend these acts of pure evil...I have always supported efforts to responsibly end the war in Afghanistan in a way that would keep Americans safe, but I have grave concerns that President Biden’s disastrous pull out from Afghanistan will erase twenty years of hard fought gains in the war on terror and put us at great risk once again."
CANADA'S PRIME MINISTER JUSTIN TRUDEAU
"As we reflect on the last 20 years, we remain committed to the Afghan people, and continue to promote and advocate for the protection of fundamental human rights in Afghanistan – particularly for women and girls. We will also continue to support active members and veterans of the Canadian Armed Forces, and the many public servants who served in Afghanistan. And we remember those who lost their lives defending peace, freedom, and democracy."
BRITAIN'S QUEEN ELIZABETH
"...my thoughts and prayers – and those of my family and the entire nation – remain with the victims, survivors and families affected, as well as the first responders and rescue workers called to duty...as we honour those from many nations, faiths, and backgrounds who lost their lives, we also pay tribute to the resilience and determination of the communities who joined together to rebuild."
DONALD TRUMP, 45th U.S. PRESIDENT
"Congratulations to Rudy Giuliani (for the 20th time!), the greatest Mayor in the history of New York City, for having shown such leadership and doing such an incredible job during and after the attack on our Nation!"
George W. Bush warns of danger from domestic terrorists on 9/11 anniversary
On the 20th anniversary of the deadliest attack on U.S. soil, George W. Bush, who was president at the time, warned of a new danger coming from within the country.
"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 on Saturday at the 9/11 memorial site in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, during a ceremony to mark the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
"There is little cultural overlaps between violent extremists abroad and violent extremists at home ... they are children of the same foul spirit, and it is our continuing duty to confront them."
The United States has seen an uptick in homegrown terror threats in recent years, particularly from white supremacists, capped by the deadly Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol by followers of Republican former President Donald Trump.
The attackers were hoping to stop U.S. lawmakers from certifying the election that Trump lost to Democrat Joe Biden.
Bush, recalling the unity of the American people after the attacks, appealed for a return to that spirit amid growing political division in the country.
"When it comes to unity of America, those days seem distant from our own," the Republican former president said. "Malign force seems at work in our common life ... so much of our politics has become a naked appeal to anger, fear and resentment."
Trump did not attend any formal 9/11 events on Saturday. In the afternoon, he repeated his frequent lie that the 2020 election was "rigged" to a group of New York police officers at a precinct near his Manhattan home, and said the city's crime would stop if police were allowed to act as they wished.
Bush and his wife Laura, as well as Vice President Kamala Harris, were attending a ceremony at the Shanksville site where United Airlines Flight 93 crashed after passengers overpowered the hijackers. The plane crashed in a field, preventing another target from being hit.
"In the sacrifice of the first responders, in the mutual aid of strangers, in the solidarity of grief and grace, the actions of an enemy revealed the spirit of a people," Bush said, describing the country's reaction. "We were proud of our wounded nation."
BUSH ON AFGHANISTAN PULLOUT
Bush's has rarely spoken publicly about the 9/11 attacks, which killed nearly 3,000 people in New York, Washington and Shanksville, since leaving office.
The attacks prompted Bush to launch a U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan that ousted the Taliban from control in Kabul and sent al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden into hiding.
His administration's subsequent invasion of Iraq, based on the erroneous claim that Saddam Hussein's authoritarian government had illicit weapons of mass destruction diverted resources and attention from Afghanistan, leaving U.S. strategy there adrift, former officials and experts say.
Biden's withdrawal of remaining U.S. military forces in Afghanistan at the end of August, months after a deadline set by Trump, triggered harsh criticism from both Democrats and Republicans, as a lightning-fast Taliban takeover stranded Americans and Afghans seeking to evacuate.
In a July interview with German state broadcaster Deutsche Welle, Bush called the pullout a mistake and said he worried "the consequences are going to be unbelievably bad."
Speaking about U.S. veterans who served in Afghanistan, Bush said "you have been a force for good in the world and nothing that has followed can tarnish your honor."