Americans are remembering 9/11 with moments of silence, readings of victims’ names, volunteer work and other tributes 21 years after the deadliest terror attack on U.S. soil.
Victims’ relatives and dignitaries will convene Sunday at the places where hijacked jets crashed on Sept. 11, 2001 — the World Trade Center in New York, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania.
Other communities around the country are marking the day with candlelight vigils, interfaith services and other commemorations. Some Americans are joining in volunteer projects on a day that is federally recognized as both Patriot Day and a National Day of Service and Remembrance.
The observances follow a fraught milestone anniversary last year. It came weeks after the chaotic and humbling end of the Afghanistan war that the U.S. launched in response to the attacks.
But if this Sept. 11 may be less of an inflection point, it remains a point for reflection on the attack that killed nearly 3,000 people, spurred a U.S. “war on terror” worldwide and reconfigured national security policy.
It also stirred — for a time — a sense of national pride and unity for many, while subjecting Muslim Americans to years of suspicion and bigotry and engendering debate over the balance between safety and civil liberties. In ways both subtle and plain, the aftermath of 9/11 ripples through American politics and public life to this day.
And the attacks have cast a long shadow into the personal lives of thousands of people who survived, responded or lost loved ones, friends and colleagues.
More than 70 of Sekou Siby’s co-workers perished at Windows on the World, the restaurant atop the trade center’s north tower. Siby had been scheduled to work that morning until another cook asked him to switch shifts.
Siby never took a restaurant job again; it would have brought back too many memories. The Ivorian immigrant wrestled with how to comprehend such horror in a country where he’d come looking for a better life.
He found it difficult to form the type of close, family-like friendships he and his Windows on the World co-workers had shared. It was too painful, he had learned, to become attached to people when “you have no control over what’s going to happen to them next.”
“Every 9/11 is a reminder of what I lost that I can never recover,” says Siby, who is now president and CEO of ROC United. The restaurant workers’ advocacy group evolved from a relief center for Windows on the World workers who lost their jobs when the twin towers fell.
On Sunday, President Biden laid a wreath at the Pentagon and delivered remarks paying tribute to those who were killed in the attacks, saying the time that has passed “is both a lifetime and no time at all.”
“Terror struck us on that brilliant blue morning. The air filled with smoke and then came the sirens and the stories, stories of those we lost, stories of incredible heroism from that terrible day. The American story itself changed that day,” he said. “But what we will not change, what we cannot change, never will, is the character of this nation that the terrorists thought they could wound.”
The president expressed gratitude to the civilians and service members who swiftly responded to the attack at the Pentagon and the Americans who joined the armed forces in the wake of Sept. 11, declaring, “we owe you.”
“Through all that has changed over the last 21 years, the enduring resolve of the American people to defend ourselves against those who seek us harm and deliver justice to those responsible to the attacks against our people has never once faltered,” he said.
Mr. Biden also spoke of the importance of American democracy, saying the American people have an obligation to defend and protect it. The president has sounded an alarm about what he believes are assaults on democracy by some within the Republican Party who refuse to acknowledge the results of the 2020 presidential election.
“The American democracy depends on the habits of the heart, on ‘we the people,'” he said. “It’s not enough to stand up for democracy once a year, or every now and then. It’s something we have to do every single day. So this is a day not only to remember, but a day of renewal and resolve for each and every American and our devotion to this country, to the principles it embodies, to our democracy.”
First lady Jill Biden was also scheduled to speak in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, where one of the hijacked planes went down after passengers and crew members tried to storm the cockpit as the hijackers headed for Washington. Al Qaeda conspirators had seized control of the jets to use them as passenger-filled missiles.
Vice President Kamala Harris and husband Doug Emhoff attended the ceremony at the National Sept. 11 Memorial in New York, but by tradition, no political figures speak. It centers instead on victims’ relatives reading aloud the names of the dead.
Readers often add personal remarks that form an alloy of American sentiments about Sept. 11 — grief, anger, toughness, appreciation for first responders and the military, appeals to patriotism, hopes for peace, occasional political barbs, and a poignant accounting of the graduations, weddings, births and daily lives that victims have missed.
Some relatives also lament that a nation which came together — to some extent — after the attacks has since splintered apart. So much so that federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies, which were reshaped to focus on international terrorism after 9/11, now see the threat of domestic violent extremism as equally urgent.