From an urban memorial to a remote field to the heart of of the nation's military might, President Joe Biden on Saturday paid tribute at three hallowed places of grief and remembrance to honor the lives lost two decades ago in the 9/11 terror attacks.
The solemn day of commemoration offered frequent reminders for Americans of a time when they united in the face of unimaginable tragedy. That fading spirit of 9/11 was invoked most forcefully by the president at the time of the attacks, George W. Bush, who said, “That is the America I know,” in stark contrast to the bitterly divided nation Biden now leads.
Biden left the speech-making to others, paying his respects at the trio of sites in New York, Pennsylvania and outside Washington where four hijacked planes crashed on Sept. 11, 2001, killing nearly 3,000 people, shattering the nation’s sense of security and launching the country into two decades of warfare.
Joe Biden Embraces Message of Unity on 9/11 Anniversary
Biden wiped away a tear as he stood in silence at the site where the World Trade Center towers fell, and looked up at the haunting sound of a jet plane under clear blue skies reminiscent of that fateful day.
In a grassy field in Pennsylvania, Biden comforted family members gathered at a stone boulder near Shanksville that marked where passengers brought down a hijacked plane that had been headed for the nation's capital. At the Pentagon, Biden and his wife, Jill, took a moment of silence before a wreath studded with white, purple and red flowers on display in front of the memorial benches that mark the victims of the attack at the military headquarters.
Delivering Bud Light and appreciation to the Shanksville Volunteer Fire Department, which responded to the crash of United Flight 93, Biden praised Bush's comments in his only public remarks of the day, saying the Republican “made a really good speech today – genuinely," and wondered aloud what those who died that day would think of today's rancor.
Gesturing to a cross-shaped memorial made of steel from the twin towers adjacent to the firehouse, Biden reflected: “I’m thinking what, what what would the people who died, what would they be thinking. Would they think this makes sense for us to be doing this kind of thing where you ride down the street and someone has a sign saying ‘f- so-and-so?’”
It was a reference to an explicit sign attacking Biden last week in New Jersey as he toured storm damage that was displayed by supporters of former President Donald Trump. Biden expressed incredulity at recent comments by Trump, whom he accused of abandoning the nation's ideals during his time in office.
“Everyone says, ‘Biden, why do you keep insisting on trying to bring the country together?’’’ the president told reporters. “That’s the thing that’s going to affect our well-being more than anything else.”
At ground zero in New York City, Biden stood side by side with former Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton at the National September 11 Memorial as the names of the dead were read aloud by their loved ones. Each man wore a blue ribbon and held his hand over his heart as a procession marched a flag through the memorial before hundreds of people, some carrying photos of loved ones lost in the attacks.
Alluding to domestic turmoil, including the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol, Bush said that “the dangers to our country can come not only across borders but from violence that gathers within.” He added that while they have little cultural similarity to the 9/11 attackers, “they are children of the same foul spirit, and it is our continuing duty to confront them.”
Vice President Kamala Harris also spoke at the Flight 93 National Memorial, echoing the theme of unity as she praised the courage of those passengers and the resilience of Americans who came together in the days after the attacks.
“In a time of outright terror, we turned toward each other,” Harris said. “If we do the hard work of working together as Americans, if we remain united in purpose, we will be prepared for whatever comes next.”
Biden was a U.S. senator when hijackers commandeered four planes and carried out the attacks. He was Obama’s vice president in 2011 when the country observed the 10th anniversary of the strikes. Saturday’s commemoration was his first as commander in chief.
It is now Biden who shoulders the responsibility borne by his predecessors to prevent another strike. He must do that against fears of a rise in terrorism after the hasty U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, where those who planned the Sept. 11 attacks were sheltered.
In remarks at the firehouse Biden defended the withdrawal, which culminated with a massive airlift to evacuate more than 110,000 Americans and allies — but still resulted in many being left behind for an uncertain future under Taliban rule.
“Could al-Qaida come back? Yeah. But guess what, it’s already back other places," Biden said. "What’s the strategy? Every place where al-Qaida is, we’re going to invade and have troops stay in? Cmon.”
Rather than deliver formal remarks, Biden released a taped address late Friday about the anniversary in which he spoke about the “true sense of national unity” that emerged after the attacks, seen in “heroism everywhere — in places expected and unexpected.”
Biden became the fourth president to console the nation on the anniversary of that dark day, one that has shaped many of the most consequential domestic and foreign policy decisions made by the chief executives over the past two decades.
Trump skipped the official 9/11 memorial ceremonies and instead visited a fire station and police precinct in New York, where he laced into Biden over his withdrawal from Afghanistan and repeated lies about the 2020 election as he paid tribute to New York’s first responders.
Bush was reading a book to Florida schoolchildren when the planes slammed into the World Trade Center. He spent that day being kept out of Washington for security reasons — a decision then-Sen. Biden urged him to reconsider, the current president has written — and then delivered a brief, halting speech that night from the White House to a terrified nation.
The terrorist attack would define Bush's presidency. The following year, he chose Ellis Island as the location to deliver his first anniversary address, the Statue of Liberty over his shoulder as he pledged, “What our enemies have begun, we will finish.”
By the time Obama spoke at the 10th anniversary, attack mastermind Osama bin Laden was dead, killed in a May 2011 Navy SEAL raid. Though the nation remained entangled overseas, and vigilant against threats, the anniversary became more about healing.
Trump pledged to get the U.S. out of Afghanistan, but his words during his first Sept. 11 anniversary ceremony in 2017 were a vivid warning to terrorists, telling “these savage killers that there is no dark corner beyond our reach, no sanctuary beyond our grasp, and nowhere to hide anywhere on this very large earth.”
How 9/11 shaped Joe Biden’s approach to the politics of national tragedy
Like everyone else on Sept. 11, 2001, Joe Biden found himself in a state of confusion when word trickled in that a plane had struck one of the iconic Twin Towers in New York City. He was on his way from Wilmington to Washington, D.C., anticipating a rather mundane commute and a rather mundane Senate confirmation hearing for John Walters, President George W. Bush’s pick for the Office of National Drug Control Policy.
In those subsequent moments, Biden made his entrance into a dark and difficult chapter in U.S. history, one that would see him play an instrumental role in the U.S. response over the course of two decades. In the process, he gave the American public one of the first real glimpses of a personality trait that has come to define his career in politics and his conduct in the presidency. The then-Senator’s first inclination in the milieu of fear and chaos was that he had the responsibility, perch, and unique skill set to comfort; and that he needed to find a way to speak to the public.
Biden has always prided himself on his oratorical skills, which he had honed over time despite a childhood stutter. Sometimes, they worked to his benefit — like when he was hailed early in his career as the leader of a new generation of Democrats and presided over the Judiciary Committee during critical Supreme Court nomination hearings. Sometimes, his confidence in them was betrayed by the results, like when he went on a riff about Barack Obama’s articulateness during the 2008 primaries, or the countless other moments when he said something off the cuff that he later had to clarify.
When he stepped off the train that morning at roughly 10 a.m., Biden rushed the few blocks between Union Station and the Capitol. Off in the distance, smoke was rising in the air across the Potomac. Another plane, American Airlines Flight 77, had crashed into the Pentagon. A Capitol police officer stopped him at the entrance, refusing to let him into the building.
Margaret Aitken, Biden’s press secretary at the time, met up with him on his way to the Capitol steps. She recalled Biden trying to find a way to get in front of the C-SPAN cameras on the Senate floor in order to say something that the public could find reassuring. “He wanted our country and the rest of the world to know that our government was still operational. That was extremely important to him at that time,” Aitken recalled.
Part of Biden’s desire to speak that morning was driven by the fact that the other national figures couldn’t. Bush was still being kept away from D.C. for his safety, having spent the morning in a classroom in Florida promoting education and literacy. Then-Vice President Dick Cheney was in the presidential bunker. Biden, who had recently become the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was arguably the most senior foreign policy figure not in the executive branch.
But those who have worked with Biden note he also believes firmly in his capacities to project calm and empathy in moments where those two notions seem lacking. Whereas some politicians find it difficult to comfort the afflicted, Biden has taken pride in his ability to do so. He has eulogized colleagues who have passed, given national addresses around moments of gun violence, and commemorated grim milestones around the Covid-19 pandemic. It is a role not every politician can play. And, as the day of 9/11 unfolded, it was not clear if Biden, or anyone, could either.
Despite Biden’s protestations to Capitol police, he would never be allowed onto the Senate floor. Aides recalled, at that moment, that Biden looked at the jumble of lawmakers, staffers and tourists standing in shock after evacuating the Capitol and began going up to people individually, grabbing their shoulders, and sharing the message he wanted to share with the cameras: “We're going to be OK, we're going to be OK.”
Former Rep. Bob Brady, a Pennsylvania Democrat, was with Biden that day. The two of them tried to convince other members of the legislative branch to team up and push for access to the Capitol to gavel Congress back into session, if only to signal that the government was unbowed. But after hours of trying, they gave up.
“He said, ‘you got a car?’ I said, ‘yeah I got a car,” Brady told POLITICO. So the two lawmakers, a member of Brady’s staff and Biden’s brother, Jimmy — who had been in D.C. that day and made his way over to the Capitol — piled in a car together to head home.
On the way to the car, Biden ran into Linda Douglass, the Chief Capitol Hill Correspondent for ABC News at the time. She had recently been evacuated herself and was looking for a place to do a live shot and, more importantly, any senior government official to talk to.
”It was just such a relief to see somebody of his stature and seniority, able to talk to the country, which was in a state of terror and confusion,” said Douglass, who went on to become an aide to the Obama-Biden 2008 campaign. “That is the part of it that was significant to me: there were no other voices. There were no other leaders who were able to start reassuring the country.”
Back at the studio, ABC news anchor Peter Jennings asked Biden about al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden, who was already being discussed as the mastermind behind the attacks. “The tendency in these circumstances is to be too focused on one man, one idea, one prospect … I think it’s much too early for us to make those kinds of judgments,” Biden said. “This cannot be dealt with overnight. It’s an incredible tragedy. But it’s a new threat of the twenty-first century, and we will find a way to do it. ”
After the interview, Biden and Brady hopped in the car, jumped into the heavy afternoon traffic and took what Brady remembers as a somber and quiet ride to Wilmington. The men listened to the news the entire ride, talked to family members and spent most of the ride in shock. “We just didn’t know what to think about it, what to do about it,” Brady recalled. He says the men sobbed and said a prayer any time there was an update on how many had been killed that day.
Close to Baltimore, Biden’s phone rang again. It was President Bush thanking “him for his remarks,” Brady said. The president also told Biden the intelligence community was telling him to stay away from the nation’s capital. Biden pushed back, “Mr. President, come back to Washington.”
Brady dropped the Bidens off at the Wilmington train station, where Biden’s own car had been all day. The next morning, Biden held a staff meeting back at the Capitol, where he found himself consoling young aides with a speech that Aitken says she told him more people needed to hear. So, they called the producers of the Oprah Winfrey Show.
“I've literally gotten heads of state on the phone quicker than Oprah,” Aitken says with a laugh. Her show was preempted by 9/11 coverage for days and Biden would appear on Monday, the 17th, nearly a week later.
“We have fought evil. We have preserved our constitutional rights, our values and everything that’s so important to America,” Biden read before remarking himself, “They do not have the capacity to take this nation down. They don’t have the capacity.”