Twenty years ago, September 11th arrived as just a date. At midnight it was 9/11, the shaky starting point for a new era of terror, war, politics, patriotism, and tragedy.
The U.S. marked its milestone anniversary Saturday under the brunt of a pandemic and in the shadow of a friendly withdrawal from Afghanistan that fell on the same militant rulers who gave the plotters of the 2001 attacks a safe haven.
“It’s hard because you hope this was just a different time in a different world. But sometimes the story starts to repeat itself and not in the best way,” said Thea Trinidad, who told her father in the attacks lost and volunteered to read the victim’s names at the ceremony at Ground Zero in New York.
President Joe Biden plans to travel to all three attack sites: New York World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
In a video released Friday night, he mourned the ongoing losses of 9/11.
“The children were raised without parents, and the parents suffered without children,” said Biden, a childhood friend of the father of a 9/11 victim, Davis Grier Sezna Jr.
But the president also highlighted what he calls the “central lesson” of 9/11: “that at our most dangerous … unity is our greatest strength.”
Former President George W. Bush, the nation’s leader on 9/11, is on the Pennsylvania Memorial with his successor, Barack Obama, on ground zero. The only other post-9/11 U.S. president, Donald Trump, plans to be in New York, in addition to commenting on a boxing match in Florida tonight.
Other observations — from a wreath-laying ceremony in Portland, Maine, to a fire parade in Guam — are planned over a land that is now full of 9/11 plaques, statues, and memorial gardens.
Using airplanes as rockets, the assailants launched the deadliest terrorist attacks on American soil, taking nearly 3,000 lives, tipping over the Twin Towers, and ushering in an age of fear.
Security has been redefined, with changes to airport checkpoints, police practices, and government surveillance. In the years that followed, almost every major explosion, crash, or act of violence posed a terrible question: “Is it terrorism?” Some ideological violence and conspiracies have since been pursued, although federal officials and the public have recently become increasingly concerned about threats from homemade extremists after years of concentrating on international terrorist groups after 9/11.
New York raises early questions about whether it can ever recover from the blow to its financial hub and restore a sense of security among the people and skyscrapers. New Yorkers eventually rebuilt a more popular and prosperous city but had to reckon with the tactics of an empowered post-9/11 police department and an expanded gap between port and notes.
A “war on terror” has led to invasions by Iraq and Afghanistan, where the longest-running U.S. war was ended last month with a hasty, massive airlift by a suicide bomber who killed 169 Afghans and 13 U.S. service members and a branch of the Extremist group of the Islamic State. The US is now worried that al-Qaeda, the terrorist network behind 9/11, could regroup in Afghanistan.
Two decades after helping to triage and treat wounded colleagues at the Pentagon on September 11, retired Army Col. Malcolm Bruce Westcott is sad and frustrated by the continuing threat of terrorism.
“I always felt that my generation, my military cohort, would take care of it – we would not pass it on to anyone,” said Westcott, of Greensboro, Georgia. “And we passed it on.”
For Angelique Tung, who was at the trade center for a business meeting on 9/11 and fled on 77 stairs, the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan evoked empathy for troops serving there. Some are now wondering if their efforts and victims have made a difference, which makes Tung think of a question she has been asking herself since 9/11.
“I hope after 20 years other people ask this question: What can contribute?” said Tung, of Wellesley, Massachusetts, On September 11, a stream of common grief and common purpose was driven, but it was quickly continued.
Muslim Americans carried suspicion, surveillance, and hate crimes. The search to understand the catastrophic toll of terrorist attacks has led to changes in building construction and emergency communications, but it has also shattered conspiracy theories that have fueled a culture of skepticism. Schisms and resistance grow with immigration, the balance between tolerance and vigilance, the importance of patriotism, the right way to honor the dead n 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.”