The nation on Sunday honored the nearly 3,000 lives lost 21 years ago during the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, even as the country remains mired in the fallout of the decades-long war in Afghanistan and new concerns have arisen about the strength and resiliency of democratic institutions in the United States.
President Biden led a day of nationwide remembrance from Arlington, Va., against the backdrop of heavy wind and rain. He delivered forceful remarks after attending a wreath-laying ceremony at the Pentagon with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Gen. Mark A. Milley.
Themes of unity and resilience colored Biden’s remarks at the Pentagon, and he and Vice President Harris both nodded to the latest threats to elections and other democratic institutions such as the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.
“I hope we’ll remember that in the midst of these dark days, we dug deep,” Biden said on Sunday before a crowd of families of 9/11 victims and first responders who were at the Pentagon on the day of the attack. “We regained the light by reaching out to one another and finding something all too rare, a true sense of national unity.”
“To me, that’s the greatest lesson of September 11,” he continued. “Not that we will never again face a setback, but that in a moment of great unity, we also had to face down the worst impulses fear, violence, recrimination directed against Muslim Americans as well as Americans of Middle Eastern and South Asian heritage.”
This year’s ceremonies were also a reminder of the messy withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan and the collapse of the U.S.-backed Afghan government a year ago at the end of August. It comes six weeks after Ayman al-Zawahiri — the leader of al-Qaeda and an architect of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks — was killed in a CIA drone strike in Kabul.
Since the withdrawal from Afghanistan, questions linger about how the United States is confronting terrorist threats there.
Retired Gen. Frank McKenzie, who was at the Pentagon during the 9/11 attack, did not answer directly when asked if he agreed with the Biden administration’s assessment that terrorist groups ISIS and al-Qaeda are not a threat to carry out an attack on the United States.
Instead, McKenzie said that, when he left active duty in April after serving as commander of the U.S. Central Command, he warned that al-Qaeda and ISIS would be able to regenerate after the United States left Afghanistan.
“That is still my opinion today,” he said on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” noting that the Taliban is back in control of Afghanistan.
Although the CIA successfully carried out an operation to target al-Zawahiri at the end of July, McKenzie said it concerned him that the al-Qaeda leader had been “living in very good accommodations in downtown Kabul” when he was killed.
“That should give us all pause,” McKenzie said.
Another lingering issue various administrations have yet to resolve has been what to do about the repeatedly delayed trials of the five Guantánamo Bay prisoners, including the man who is alleged to have masterminded the 9/11 attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. When asked how he would respond to families of 9/11 victims who want justice, Biden told reporters in Delaware on Sunday morning that “there is a plan for that” without going into specifics.
The solemn commemorations on Sunday also hark back to very personal memories. First lady Jill Biden traveled to the Flight 93 National Memorial observance near Shanksville, Pa., and was joined by her sister Bonny Jacobs, a United Airlines flight attendant. In an interview with the Associated Press, Jill Biden recalled being “scared to death” that her sister was on one of the four hijacked planes.
“I didn’t know where she was, whether she was flying, not flying, where she was,” she recalled in the interview. “And then I found out she was home.”
During remarks to the crowd in Pennsylvania, Jill Biden touched on courage and interconnectedness.
“So as we stand on this sacred and scarred earth — a record of our collective grief and a monument to the memories that live on in each of us — this is the legacy we must carry forward: Hope that defies hate. Love that defies loss. And the ties that hold us together through it all,” Jill Biden said.
In New York, Harris and Doug Emhoff, the second gentleman, attended a commemoration ceremony at the National September 11th Memorial. They were joined by New York Mayor Eric Adams and former mayor Mike Bloomberg as friends and family read the names of each victim of the 2001 and 1993 World Trade Center attacks.
Political leaders, including Harris, didn’t deliver remarks Sunday. But in an interview with Chuck Todd aired Sunday on NBC News’s “Meet the Press,” Harris was asked whether domestic threats pose a risk equal or greater than what the country faced 21 years ago.
Harris said that the domestic risks are “dangerous and extremely harmful, but they’re different.”
She also warned about ongoing threats to democracy, as Republicans who deny the results of the 2020 presidential election inch closer to positions of power in several states. According to an analysis by The Washington Post, nearly two-thirds of GOP nominees for state and federal offices with authority over elections are candidates who have refused to accept the 2020 election results and, in some cases, said they would not have certified Biden’s win.
Those people, as well as officials who refuse to condemn the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, have caused others to question if America still values the integrity of democracies, Harris said.
Democrats and Republicans, who are sharply divided on most issues, agree that democracy in the United States is in danger, according to a new poll from Quinnipiac University — even as they diverge on the reasons they believe it is at risk.
But Biden, who inherited a nation in crisis, believes democracy can bring America back into the fold.
“For all our flaws and disagreements in the push and pull of all that makes us human,” he said, “there’s nothing this nation cannot accomplish when we stand together and defend with all our hearts that which makes us unique in the world: our democracy.”
Amy B Wang contributed to this report.