Solemn Remembrance: 9/11 Twenty Years Later


Wesley Smith


September 10, 2021

Twenty years ago, 19 terrorists associated with the Islamist group al-Qaeda hijacked four airplanes and carried out suicide attacks on America.  It was September 11, 2001, a day that will forever remain in the collective memory of the United States of America.  At 8:45 am that day, an American Airlines Boeing 767 with 20,000 gallons of jet fuel on board crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center in New York City.  The impact left a gaping hole near the 80th floor of the 110-story building, instantly killing hundreds of people and trapping hundreds more on the higher floors.  Eighteen minutes later, a second Boeing 767—United Airlines Flight 175—appeared, crashing into the South Tower near the 60th floor.  It was immediately clear that our nation was under attack.

As millions watched the events at the World Trade Center, American Airlines Flight 77—a Boeing 757—circled around Washington D.C. and crashed into the west side of the Pentagon at 9:45 am.  All 64 people on board, along with 125 military personnel in the building, perished.  Fifteen minutes after the plane smashed into the headquarters of the nation’s military, the South Tower of the World Trade Center tumbled down in a massive cloud of dust, debris, and smoke.  At 10:30 am, the North Tower of the complex also collapsed.

While all this was happening, a fourth plane—United Flight 93, a Boeing 757—bound for California was hijacked after departing Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey.  The plane was delayed taking off, so the passengers knew of the events taking place in New York City via cell phone calls and Airfones on the plane.  Realizing that their aircraft was also commandeered by terrorists, the passengers and brave flight attendants planned a counterattack.  One passenger, Thomas Burnett, Jr., told his wife over the phone, “I know we’re all going to die.  There’s three of us who are going to do something about it.  I love you, honey.”  Over an open line, Todd Beamer, another passenger, was heard saying, “Are you guys ready?  Let’s roll.”  Sandy Bradshaw, a flight attendant, called her husband and told him she was in the galley boiling water as a weapon.  The plane turned upside down and flew into the ground at over 500 miles an hour near Shanksville, Pennsylvania at 10:10 am.  All 44 people on board died.  It’s intended target was believed to be either the White House or the U.S. Capitol.

At the World Trade Center 2,763 people died.  This included 343 firefighters and paramedics, 23 New York City police officers, and 37 Port Authority police officers.

In December 2001, Congress approved naming September 11 “Patriot Day” and in 2009, named September 11 a “National Day of Service and Remembrance.”  Interestingly, many young people do not have a personal memory of 9/11; they were either not born yet or were too young to remember.  This fact demands that those of us who do remember pass along to these younger ones the significance of this day.  Yet, the Pew Research Center also points out that 97% of Americans eight years old or older at the time of 9/11 can still remember where they were when the attacks took place.

As a chaplain assigned to the Pentagon in the aftermath of 9/11, I was movingly reminded of the events of that fateful day as I conducted weekly worship services in the Pentagon Chapel.  The plane that struck the Pentagon destroyed, among others, the offices for the U.S. Army Chief of Chaplains and his staff – to which I was assigned.  The Department of Defense intentionally took that portion of the building and constructed the new chapel.  Along with the 9/11 Memorial on the lawn outside of the building, the interfaith chapel is a visible reminder of the events of that day and the hope, courage, and resilience that sustained America during those dark days – and that hope, courage, and resilience still undergird our nation to this day.

The repercussions of that fateful day are with us to this day, as we commemorate the 20th anniversary of the attacks.  This week, the mastermind of the attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, was back in court at Guantanamo Bay as the legal wrangling over his fate continues.  He led the propaganda arm of al-Qaeda from 1999 to 2001 and was captured by the CIA in Pakistan in 2003.  Al-Qaeda’s leader Osama bin Laden was found and killed by U.S. Special Forces on May 2, 2011, in Abbottabad, Pakistan.  The War on Terror continues to this day, as we were starkly reminded when we recently lost another 13 U.S. military members at the hands of Islamic extremists at the airport in Kabul, Afghanistan.

For thousands of Americans who were personally impacted by 9/11, the pain and losses are deep, personal, and permanent.  This includes not only the loved ones of those who died on that infamous day in September—but also the families and friends of the thousands of military personnel who died in this ongoing conflict, as well as the numerous civilians who have died.

Additionally, there is a lasting collective sorrow that we feel as a nation.  Pictures and recollections of the attacks on America by terrorists evoke a deep and lasting grief on us as a people.  We own and share that sadness together—along with a firm resolve to never forget what happened or forget those who died.  These feelings are vividly pronounced as we now face another September 11.

The feelings that accompany this 20th anniversary have been brought to the surface and are fresh for all of us in a new way. A 20-year war that started as a response to that first 9/11 is ending pretty much as it began:  the evil and repressive Taliban regime is in charge of Afghanistan again.  If the events of the last few weeks had not happened, we would be remembering the 20th anniversary in a different way.

September 11, 2021, is not a day of celebration—nor was it ever intended to be. It is a day to remember.  While it is a day of reverent gratitude for those who made the ultimate sacrifice, those who serve in our nation’s armed forces, and our first responders, it is moreso a day of solemn recollection.  Remembering is not just a state of mind.  Like those who ask that we never forget the Holocaust often remind us, remembering is also an act.  It is something we do individually and as a nation.  It gives us resolve, strength, and determination.

This year our remembering takes many forms.  It will take place in Ground Zero ceremonies, as well as solemn events at the Pentagon and in rural Pennsylvania.  It will be marked by prayers and moments of silence.  As we did on that Tuesday in September 2001, many will gather in churches and synagogues to pray.

It would be wonderful and appropriate if we could also remember in one other way:  On 9/11 and the weeks that followed, we were truly, truly united as Americans.  Race, religion, political party, and other distinctions faded into the background.  Our shock and grief brought us together as a people like never before.  For a little while, e pluribus unum became a reality:  Out of many, One.  Finger-pointing ceased, as did political blame games.  We interacted with each other with a gentleness and kindness that dressed our wounds.  We were grateful for one another.  We were grateful for the gift of being a part of the United States of America.  Let it be so again.