WASHINGTON – Sombre ceremonies in New York City, Arlington in Virginia and Shanksville in Pennsylvania, on Saturday (Sept 11) marked the 20th anniversary of the Sept 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that killed 2,977 people from 90 nations, in the single largest loss of life from a foreign attack on American soil.
President Joe Biden visited all three sites on Saturday. In New York City, he was joined by, among others, former presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama and their spouses.
The greatest lesson from that day was the value of national unity, President Biden said in a pre-taped video message.
America witnessed not only heroism, but also “the darker forces of human nature”, he said.
“Fear and anger, resentment and violence against Muslim Americans, true and faithful followers of a peaceful religion. We saw a national unity bend.”
“We learnt that unity is the one thing that must never break. Unity is what makes us who we are,” he added.
“To me, that’s the central lesson… that at our most vulnerable, in the push and pull of all that makes us human, in the battle for the soul of America, unity is our greatest strength.”
“We must have a fundamental respect and faith in each other and in this nation,” Mr Biden said.
“We are unique in the history of the world because we are the only nation based on an idea… that everyone is created equal and should be treated equally throughout their lives. That is the task before us. To once again, lead not just by the example of our power, but by the power of our example.”
That day in 2001, 19 militants associated with the Al-Qaeda terrorist group hijacked four commercial airplanes. Two were flown into the Twin Towers of New York’s World Trade Center, which collapsed. A third was flown into the Pentagon in Arlington just outside Washington, DC.
Crew members and passengers on a fourth plane, which was turned to head to the Capitol in Washington DC, fought with the hijackers; the plane crashed in a field near Shanksville.
Several family members of some of the victims in the attack in New York spoke at the ceremony, their voices often cracking with emotion.
Mr Biden said in his video message: “No matter how much time has passed, these commemorations bring everything painfully back.”
But he added: “In the days that followed… we saw heroism everywhere.”
“We also saw something all too rare – a true sense of national unity… and resilience, the capacity to recover and repair in the face of trauma.”
America would also “never stop” hunting down terrorists who sought to harm the nation, he said.
The event, which reverberated across the world and sparked two wars – with the United States invading Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003 – was marked elsewhere too.
Britain’s Queen Elizabeth, in a message to Mr Biden on Saturday, said: “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.”
“It reminds me that 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.”
In Australia, Prime Minister Scott Morrison wrote in an opinion piece: “Sept 11 reminded us that freedom is always fragile.”
“That day was an attack on free peoples everywhere. It was an attack on our way of life and the values of liberal democracy. Despite the pain inflicted on that day, the terrorists ultimately failed in their attempts to crush our resolve and change our way of life.”
French President Emmanuel Macron tweeted: “We will #NeverForget. We will always fight for freedom.”
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said the events of Sep 11, 2001, were “attacks on humanity”.
In an opinion piece in The Straits Times, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong wrote: “Our world changed overnight.”
“We discovered right here among us a terrorist group having a common ideology and direct links with Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan – the Jemaah Islamiah (JI) group.”
JI’s plans for attacks in Singapore were swiftly disrupted, he noted.
And “in an existential crisis, Singaporeans instinctively pulled together, and responded strongly and cohesively to keep ourselves safe”.
On his Facebook page, Mr Lee wrote: “On the 20th anniversary of 9/11, let us resolve to fortify ourselves so that should we ever face another such test one day, we will come through again, stronger, as one united people.”
In the US, the commemorations have been clouded by the swift return to power in Afghanistan, on the back of a chaotic US withdrawal, of the Taliban – the same regime that gave shelter to the perpetrators of the attacks and has never condemned Al-Qaeda for them.
Mr Lee, on a cautionary note, wrote: “And now that the US has left Afghanistan, we will have to watch closely how the situation there develops, whether groups based in Afghanistan will again threaten our security, and where else new fronts of terrorism may emerge.”