U.S. Marks 20 Years Since 9/11 In Shadow Of Afghan War's End

The 9/11 anniversary commemoration at ground zero began Saturday with a tolling bell and a moment of silence, exactly 20 years after the start of the attack.

NEW YORK (AP) — Millions of people solemnly marked the 20th anniversary of 9/11 on Saturday, remembering the dead, invoking the heroes and taking stock of the aftermath just weeks after the bloody end of the Afghanistan war that was launched in response to the terror attacks.

The ceremony at ground zero in New York began exactly two decades after the deadliest act of terrorism on U.S. soil started with the first of four hijacked planes crashing into one of the World Trade Center’s twin towers.

“It felt like an evil specter had descended on our world, but it was also a time when many people acted above and beyond the ordinary,” said Mike Low, whose daughter, Sara Low, was a flight attendant on that plane.

“As we carry these 20 years forward, I find sustenance in a continuing appreciation for all of those who rose to be more than ordinary people,” the father told a crowd that included President Joe Biden and former presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton.

The anniversary unfolded under the pall of a pandemic and in the shadow of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, which is now ruled by the same Taliban militant group that gave safe haven to the 9/11 plotters.

“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, who lost her father in the attacks, said before reading victims’ names at the ceremony.

Bruce Springsteen and Broadway actors Kelli O’Hara and Chris Jackson sang at the commemoration, but by tradition, no politicians spoke there. In a video released Friday night, Biden addressed the continuing pain of loss but also spotlighted what he called the “central lesson” of Sept. 11: “that at our most vulnerable ... unity is our greatest strength.”

Biden was also paying respects at the two other sites where the 9/11 conspirators crashed the jets: the Pentagon and a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Together, the attacks killed nearly 3,000 people.

At the Pennsylvania site — where passengers and crew fought to regain control of a plane believed to have been targeted at the U.S. Capitol or the White House — former President George W. Bush said Sept. 11 showed that Americans can come together despite their differences.

“So much of our politics has become a naked appeal to anger, fear and resentment,” said the president who was in office on 9/11. “On America’s day of trial and grief, I saw millions of people instinctively grab their neighbor’s hand and rally to the cause of one another. That is the America know.”

“It is the truest version of ourselves. It is what we have been and what we can be again.”

Calvin Wilson said a polarized country has “missed the message” of the heroism of the flight’s passengers and crew, which included his brother-in-law, LeRoy Homer.

“We don’t focus on the damage. We don’t focus on the hate. We don’t focus on retaliation. We don’t focus on revenge,” Wilson said before the ceremony. “We focus on the good that all of our loved ones have done.”

Former President Donald Trump visited a New York police station and a firehouse, praising responders’ bravery while criticizing Biden over the pullout from Afghanistan.

“It was gross incompetence,” said Trump, who was scheduled to provide commentary at a boxing match in Florida in the evening.

Other observances — from a wreath-laying in Portland, Maine, to a fire engine parade in Guam — were planned across a country now full of 9/11 plaques, statues and commemorative gardens.

The attacks ushered in a new era of fear, war, patriotism and, eventually, polarization.

They redefined security, changing airport checkpoints, police practices and the government’s surveillance powers.

A “war on terror” led to invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, where the longest U.S. war ended last month with a hasty, massive airlift punctuated by a suicide bombing that killed 169 Afghans and 13 American service members and was attributed to a branch of the Islamic State extremist group. The U.S. is now concerned that al-Qaida, the terror network behind 9/11, may regroup in Afghanistan, where the Taliban flag once again flew over the presidential palace on Saturday.

Two decades after helping to triage and treat injured colleagues at the Pentagon on Sept. 11, retired Army Col. Malcolm Bruce Westcott is saddened and frustrated by the continued threat of terrorism.

“I always felt that my generation, my military cohort, would take care of it — we wouldn’t pass it on to anybody else,” said Westcott, of Greensboro, Georgia. “And we passed it on.”

At ground zero, multiple victims’ relatives thanked the troops who fought in Afghanistan, while Melissa Pullis said she was “just happy all the troops are out of Afghanistan.”

“We can’t lose any more military. We don’t even know why we’re fighting, and 20 years went down the drain,” said Pullis, who lost her husband, Edward, and whose son Edward Jr. is serving on the USS Ronald Reagan.

At this point, many of the relatives reciting victims’ names are too young to have known their lost kin. But the families spoke of lives cut short, milestones missed and a loss that still feels immediate. Several also pleaded for a return of the solidarity that surged for a time after Sept. 11 but soon gave way.

Muslim Americans endured suspicion, surveillance and hate crimes. Schisms and resentments grew over the balance between tolerance and vigilance, the meaning of patriotism, the proper way to honor the dead and the scope of a promise to “never forget.”

Trinidad was 10 when she overheard her dad, Michael, saying goodbye to her mother by phone from the burning trade center. She remembers the pain but also the fellowship of the days that followed, when all of New York “felt like it was family.”

“Now, when I feel like the world is so divided, I just wish that we can go back to that,” said Trinidad, of Orlando, Florida. “I feel like it would have been such a different world if we had just been able to hang on to that feeling.”

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Associated Press writers Michael Rubinkam in Shanksville, Pennsylvania; David Klepper in Providence, Rhode Island; and Jill Colvin in New York contributed to this report.

The Clintons, Obamas, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg joined President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden in a moment of silence during the annual 9/11 Commemoration Ceremony.
The Clintons, Obamas, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg joined President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden in a moment of silence during the annual 9/11 Commemoration Ceremony.
CHIP SOMODEVILLA via Getty Images

The anniversary comes under the pall of a pandemic and in the shadow of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, now ruled by the same militants who gave safe haven to the 9/11 plotters.

The attacks killed nearly 3,000 people and marked the start of a new era of fear, war, politics, patriotism and tragedy.

“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,” said Thea Trinidad, who lost her father in the attacks and has signed up to read victims’ names at the ceremony at ground zero in New York.

In a video released Friday night, Biden mourned the ongoing losses of 9/11.

“Children have grown up without parents, and parents have suffered without children,” said Biden, a childhood friend of the father of a Sept. 11 victim, Davis Grier Sezna Jr.

But the president also spotlighted what he called the “central lesson” of Sept. 11: “that at our most vulnerable ... unity is our greatest strength.”

Retired Illinois Willow Springs Police Chief Sam Pulia and his nephew, Chicago Police Sgt. Daniel Pulia, place flags at the South Tower before the ceremony marking the 20th anniversary of the attacks.
Retired Illinois Willow Springs Police Chief Sam Pulia and his nephew, Chicago Police Sgt. Daniel Pulia, place flags at the South Tower before the ceremony marking the 20th anniversary of the attacks.
Pool via Getty Images

Former President George W. Bush, the nation’s leader on 9/11, is due at the Pennsylvania memorial and his successor, Barack Obama, at ground zero. The only other post-9/11 U.S. president, Donald Trump, plans to be in New York, in addition to providing commentary at a boxing match in Florida in the evening.

Other observances — from a wreath-laying in Portland, Maine, to a fire engine parade in Guam — are planned across a country now full of 9/11 plaques, statues and commemorative gardens.

Using hijacked planes as missiles, the assailants inflicted the deadliest terrorist attacks on U.S. soil, taking nearly 3,000 lives, toppling the twin towers and ushering in an age of fear.

Security was redefined, with changes to airport checkpoints, police practices and the government’s surveillance powers. In the years that followed, virtually any sizeable explosion, crash or act of violence seemed to raise a dire question: “Is it terrorism?” Some ideological violence and plots did follow, though federal officials and the public have lately become increasingly concerned with threats from domestic extremists after years of focusing on international terror groups in the wake of 9/11.

New York police and firefighters hold a U.S. flag as a band plays the US National Anthem at the National 9/11 Memorial during a ceremony commemorating the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.
New York police and firefighters hold a U.S. flag as a band plays the US National Anthem at the National 9/11 Memorial during a ceremony commemorating the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.
ED JONES via Getty Images

New York faced questions early on about whether it could ever recover from the blow to its financial hub and restore a feeling of safety among the crowds and skyscrapers. New Yorkers ultimately rebuilt a more populous and prosperous city but had to reckon with the tactics of an empowered post-9/11 police department and a widened gap between haves and have-nots.

A “war on terror” led to invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, where the longest U.S. war ended last month with a hasty, massive airlift punctuated by a suicide bombing that killed 169 Afghans and 13 American service members and was attributed to a branch of the Islamic State extremist group. The U.S. is now concerned that al-Qaida, the terror network behind 9/11, may regroup in Afghanistan.

Two decades after helping to triage and treat injured colleagues at the Pentagon on Sept. 11, retired Army Col. Malcolm Bruce Westcott is saddened and frustrated by the continued threat of terrorism.

“I always felt that my generation, my military cohort, would take care of it — we wouldn’t pass it on to anybody else,” said Westcott, of Greensboro, Georgia. “And we passed it on.”

A firefighter holds up the image of a 9/11 victim as people attend a ceremony commemorating the 20th anniversary.
A firefighter holds up the image of a 9/11 victim as people attend a ceremony commemorating the 20th anniversary.
JIM WATSON via Getty Images

For Angelique Tung, who was at the trade center for a business meeting on 9/11 and escaped down 77 flights of stairs, the U.S. pullout from Afghanistan stirred empathy for troops who served there. Some now wonder whether their efforts and sacrifices made a difference, which makes Tung think of a question she has asked herself since surviving Sept. 11.

“I hope that, after 20 years, other people are asking that question: What good can come from this?” said Tung, of Wellesley, Massachusetts.

Muslim Americans endured suspicion, surveillance and hate crimes. The quest to understand the catastrophic toll of the terror attacks prompted changes in building design and emergency communications, but it also spurred conspiracy theories that seeded a culture of skepticism. Schisms and resentments grew over immigration, the balance between tolerance and vigilance, the meaning of patriotism, the proper way to honor the dead, and the scope of a promise to “never forget.”

Trinidad was 10 when she overheard her dad, Michael, saying goodbye to her mother by phone from the burning trade center. She remembers the pain but also the fellowship of the days that followed, when all of New York “felt like it was family.”

“Now, when I feel like the world is so divided, I just wish that we can go back to that,” said Trinidad, of Orlando, Florida. “I feel like it would have been such a different world if we had just been able to hang on to that feeling.”