The world solemnly marked the 20th anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001, on Saturday, grieving lost lives and shattered American unity in commemorations that unfolded just weeks after the bloody end of the Afghanistan war that was launched in response to the attacks.
Victims' relatives and four U.S. presidents paid respects at the sites where hijacked planes killed nearly 3,000 people on American soil.
Others gathered for observances from Portland, Maine, to Guam, or for volunteer projects on what has become a day of service in the United States. Foreign leaders expressed sympathy over an attack that happened in the U.S. but claimed victims from more than 90 countries.
"It felt like an evil spectre had descended on our world, but it was also a time when many people acted above and beyond the ordinary," said Mike Low, whose daughter, Sara Low, was a flight attendant on the first plane that crashed.
"As we carry these 20 years forward, I find sustenance in a continuing appreciation for all of those who rose to be more than ordinary people," Low told a crowd that included U.S. President Joe Biden and former U.S. presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton.
In a video released Friday night, Biden said Sept. 11 illustrated that "unity is our greatest strength."
Unity is "the thing that's going to affect our well-being more than anything else," he added while visiting a volunteer firehouse on Saturday after laying a wreath at the 9/11 crash site near Shanksville, Pa. He later took a moment of silence at the third site, the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.
The anniversary unfolded under the pall of a pandemic and in the shadow of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, now ruled by the same militants who gave safe haven to the Sept. 11 plotters.
"It's hard because you hoped that this would just be a different time and a different world. But sometimes history starts to repeat itself and not in the best of ways," said Thea Trinidad, who lost her father in the attacks.
Bruce Springsteen and Broadway actors Kelli O'Hara and Chris Jackson sang at the commemoration, but by tradition, no politicians spoke there.
'That is the America I know'
At the Pennsylvania site — where passengers and crew fought to regain control of a plane believed to have been targeting the U.S. Capitol or the White House — former U.S. president George W. Bush said Sept. 11 showed that Americans can come together despite their differences.
"So much of our politics has become a naked appeal to anger, fear and resentment," said Bush, who was in office on the day of the attacks. "On America's day of trial and grief, I saw millions of people instinctively grab their neighbour's hand and rally to the cause of one another. That is the America I know.
"It is what we have been and what we can be again," Bush said.
Calvin Wilson said a polarized country has "missed the message" of the heroism of the flight's passengers and crew, which included his brother-in-law, LeRoy Homer.
"We don't focus on the damage. We don't focus on the hate. We don't focus on retaliation. We don't focus on revenge," Wilson said before the ceremony. "We focus on the good that all of our loved ones have done."
Former U.S. president Donald Trump visited a New York police station and a firehouse, praising responders' bravery while criticizing Biden over the pullout from Afghanistan.
"It was gross incompetence," said Trump, who was scheduled to provide commentary at a boxing match in Florida in the evening.
The attacks ushered in a new era of fear, war, patriotism and, eventually, polarization.
They redefined security, changing airport checkpoints, police practices and the government's surveillance powers.
A post-Sept. 11 "war on terror" led to invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, where the longest U.S. war ended last month with a hasty, massive airlift punctuated by a suicide bombing attributed to a branch of the Islamic State extremist group.
The U.S. is now concerned that al-Qaeda, the terror network behind 9/11, may regroup in Afghanistan, where the Taliban flag once again flew over the presidential palace on Saturday.
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