A veteran reflected on his sacrifice in a war launched in a spirit of vengeance and ended in a haze of defeat.
Presidents past and present wondered what had become of national unity, and whether a common sense of purpose could be recovered.
On the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, commemorations of a calamitous moment in American history played out on a tableau eerily similar to the original set: a glorious late summer's day up and down the East Coast, one seemingly incongruous with planes crashing out of the clear-blue sky.
At Ground Zero in New York, the Pentagon and in a Pennsylvania field, the names of the dead were read at a clipped yet mournful cadence. Family members held photos of their loved ones aloft. Bells rang. Bagpipes wailed. Silence marked the most acute moments of horror, when planes crashed or buildings fell.
Yet the events were as much an elegy for what has been lost in the two decades since as they were for the terrible toll from that day. The accumulation of personal grief as children grew up without parents. The wounds inflicted on a nation by ruinous wars and poisonous politics.
At the site in Shanksville, Pa., where Flight 93 crashed, the hijackers' apparent plans to attack the U.S. Capitol foiled by a rebellion among passengers, relatives of those who died questioned whether the country had gone off course.
"Are we worthy of their sacrifice?" asked Gordon Felt, whose brother, Edward, was a passenger on the doomed flight. "Do we as individuals, communities and as a country conduct ourselves in a manner that would make those that sacrificed so much and fought so hard proud of who we've become?"
Speaking minutes later, the man who was president on 9/11, George W. Bush, seemed to offer an answer. On the day America was attacked and in the immediate aftermath, Bush said, the country had been unified. But increasingly, he said, America is menaced not only by foreign dangers but by "violence that gathers from within."
"There is little cultural overlap between violent extremists abroad and violent extremists at home," he said. "But in their disdain for pluralism, in their disregard for human life, in their determination to defile national symbols - they are children of the same foul spirit, and it is our continuing duty to confront them."
Although Bush did not say so outright, the reference to insurrectionists who on Jan. 6 laid siege to the U.S. Capitol - the target that Flight 93 passengers had defended - was difficult to miss.
So, too, was the difference in tone between this anniversary and the ones that have preceded it. Bush and the presidents who have followed have often used 9/11 as an opportunity for chest-beating bravado, with threats to rain down fury upon U.S. enemies.
But with the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan and the chaotic American exit only weeks old, there was far less of that than usual.
While Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley vowed at a Pentagon commemoration that "no terrorist anywhere on Earth can ever destroy" American ideals, he also noted that feelings among U.S. service members were "very conflicted" this year, following the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.
The country, after all, had lost 2,461 troops, including 13 who died in a suicide attack just two weeks ago. More than 20,000 had been injured, and countless more were afflicted, he said, "by the invisible wounds of war."
That cost became a source of quiet tension for some within the audience gathered in Shanksville, with Air Force Academy classmates of LeRoy Homer Jr., the co-pilot on Flight 93, speaking about his heroism and then quietly questioning how and why the United States left Afghanistan.
One classmate, Scott Hoffman, had deployed within days of 9/11. His son was in second grade, and he told his wife as he prepared for his mission to avenge the attacks: "I'll do this so our children don't have to."
Last month, that son, now Capt. Christopher Hoffman, was among the Americans to pilot a C17 filled with Afghans fleeing a country taken over by the Taliban.
"I feel sick to my stomach," Scott Hoffman said about the Afghan evacuation. "Our chance to stand up to the Nazis of our time and we turned our back."
President Joe Biden paid tribute to 9/11 victims in visits to all three sites where people were killed. Although he did not deliver formal remarks, he recorded a video in which he described "the central lesson" of Sept. 11.
"It's that at our most vulnerable, in the push and pull of all that makes us human, in the battle of the soul of America, unity is our greatest strength," he said.
Vice President Kamala Harris echoed that sentiment with a speech in Shanksville in which she paid tribute to Flight 93 passengers and called for Americans to "honor their courage, their conviction, with our own - that we honor their unity by strengthening our common bonds."
Former president Donald Trump did not attend any of the commemorative services, though he fired off statements critical of Biden as they got underway. He later made an unannounced visit to a New York police precinct in which he strongly hinted he will run for president again and decried the "rigged election."
Those comments were sharply at odds with the tenor of the 9/11 remembrances, which have traditionally been apolitical. At each one on Saturday, the focus remained squarely on the day's victims - particularly on all the ways their absence continues to reverberate, 20 years on.
In New York, the ceremony at Ground Zero began with the first moment of silence at 8:46 a.m. - the time Flight 11 struck the North Tower of the World Trade Center. The last moment of silence came at 10:28 a.m., in observance of the fall of the North Tower. The reading of the names of the victims, an annual tradition, went on for more than four hours, a reflection of the extraordinary toll from the worst terrorist attack in American history.
With violins and flutes for a backdrop, along with the sound of rushing water from the inverted fountains that occupy the footprint where the twin towers once stood, the names were read by relatives of the victims, their voices occasionally breaking.
Among the readers: Lisa Reina, who was eight months pregnant when she lost her husband, Joseph Reina Jr., an operations manager for Cantor Fitzgerald who worked on the 101st floor of the North Tower.
"Joe, we love and miss you more than you can ever imagine," she said. "Our son is the spitting image of you. He lights up my world every day. I see you in everything that he does."
After the moment of silence at the time that Flight 175 struck the South Tower, Bruce Springsteen - wearing a suit, and playing acoustic guitar and harmonica - performed "I'll See You in My Dreams." Many in the audience dabbed their eyes as they listened.
Among the sea of loved ones there to honor the dead was retired Army Sgt. Edwin Morales, who said he comes to the service every year to remember his cousin, Ruben "Dave" Correa, a New York City firefighter. Correa, 44, a Marine and 1991 Persian Gulf War veteran from Staten Island, died at the Marriott hotel that once stood in the shadows of the towers, his cousin said.
"His soul is right there where we did the ceremony. He was never found," Morales said of Correa, pointing to the nearby spot where he and others placed roses and tiny American flags. "Every day is 9/11 for me."
Remembrances on Saturday were not limited to the United States. "The Star-Spangled Banner" was played Saturday morning at a special changing of the guard ceremony at Windsor Castle.
The scene echoed the one 20 years ago when, two days after 9/11 and by order of Queen Elizabeth II, troops played the U.S. national anthem during the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace. The moment became a symbol of the outpouring of sympathy around the world, from allies and foes alike.
Yet there were reminders Saturday that much of that international goodwill has evaporated. China's Foreign Ministry, for instance, issued a lashing statement calling the United States "the culprit of the Afghan issue" and suggesting that it should learn some "hard lessons."
Those lessons were on the minds of many of those mourning in the United States.
Patrick J. Mahaney, a retired Green Beret who lost a cousin and six friends on 9/11, served seven tours in Afghanistan from 2002 to 2011 and said he came to love the country. But leaving it the way that the United States did, he said, "is a bipartisan disaster."
"We abandoned our Afghan partners, who we fought with shoulder-to-shoulder," he said. "They were willing to keep fighting because we said, 'We're still with you, we'll always be with you, because of 9/11.' "
Beyond New York, Shanksville and the Pentagon, there were commemorations in cities from coast to coast Saturday.
Across Boston and its suburbs, people gathered in churches, firehouses and public parks. The city has a uniquely painful connection to 9/11: The planes that flew into the World Trade Center departed from the city's Logan airport.
Leslie Blair, whose sister Susan Leigh Blair was killed on 9/11, five months after starting a job at the World Trade Center, was among those gathered at a remembrance service at Boston's John F. Kennedy Presidential Library. Following the ceremony, she said, she planned to spend the rest of the day performing acts of service, "to remember and to honor, and to push those ripples" of life from her sister a little farther outward.
Across the country, in Orange County, Calif., hundreds of people gathered to remember, including Tom Frost, whose daughter, Lisa, was due to fly back to California that day, but never made it: Her plane crashed into the South Tower.
"Lisa was just the dearest, sweetest gift I ever received. I miss her so much," he said as his voice filled with emotion. "It's a bright blue sky today. It's just like it was 20 years ago in New York, before the events of that day changed it all."
Published : September 12, 2021