Listen: How The Country Remembered 9/11, Two Decades Later : The NPR Politics Podcast There were remembrance ceremonies in New York City, Pennsylvania, and at the Pentagon. The reading of the victim's names — there were nearly 3,000 — took hours. Former President George W. Bush and Vice President Harris spoke. And, our reporters discuss the political legacy of the attacks after two decades.

This episode: White House correspondent Asma Khalid, White House correspondent Scott Detrow, and senior editor and correspondent Ron Elving.

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Listen: How The Country Remembered 9/11, Two Decades Later

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(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE STAR-SPANGLED BANNER")

UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (Singing) Oh, say, can you see?

ASMA KHALID, HOST:

Hey, there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Asma Khalid. I cover the White House.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: I'm Scott Detrow. I also cover the White House.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: And I'm Ron Elving, editor-correspondent.

KHALID: It is currently 12:36 p.m. Eastern Time on Saturday, September 11.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

KHALID: That sound was a bell in New York City to mark the moment the first plane hit the north tower of the World Trade Center. It was the beginning of events around the country today marking the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Shortly after, the reading of the names of the nearly 3,000 victims began, and it would continue for hours.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Laurence Christopher Abel.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Alona Abraham.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: William F. Abrahamson.

KHALID: At the Pentagon...

(SOUNDBITE OF PERFORMANCE OF "TAPS")

KHALID: And in Shanksville, Pa., at the crash site of Flight 93, where crew and passengers wrestled with the hijackers who were likely trying to target the U.S. Capitol.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AMAZING GRACE")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) Amazing grace, how sweet the sound.

KHALID: Scott, you're joining us now from Shanksville, where you've been covering the memorial ceremony today. Describe what you have been hearing, what you've been watching.

DETROW: Yeah, yeah. The ceremony was at the Flight 93 National Memorial in Shanksville. You know, if you've listened to the podcast, you've heard a lot about the space over the past weeks. There was a stage set up right next to the wall of names, the 40 names of the passengers and crew, that looks out over the field where the plane crashed with the hemlock trees behind. The wildflowers that really are kind of the calling card of this site, this iconic look when you get to the site, it's just this beautiful rolling fields of flowers - they're a little faded because we're getting to fall, but you could still see the yellow in the fields. And it was a beautiful day here. So it was just a really quiet, somber, reflective mood to begin the ceremony.

And, you know, the patterns and habits of these commemoration ceremonies have really never changed over the years. There's the reading of the names, there's the bells, there's the moments of silence when the planes struck the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and then crashed here in Pennsylvania. But 20 years is just a heavy feeling. This is the most attention this anniversary has gotten since the 10-year anniversary. And the world's just radically different since then.

And I know we're going to talk about this later, but I felt like just hanging over the air in conversations with people, the fact that the United States is such an angry and fractured country and we're in the middle of our own crisis right now, I think, really did affect the mood of a lot of people here but in a way that made the ceremony more powerful and poignant because the idea of unity, specifically when it comes to Flight 93 - 40 strangers who didn't know each other, who were mostly traveling by themselves, coming together in a remarkably short period of time, just 10 minutes from when they realized what was happening to when they started to act, saying we're going to fight back - it's just something that, you know, 40 strangers coming together and fighting together for one thing is not really the 2021 America vibe in a lot of different ways. And I just feel like that hung in the air today, to be honest.

KHALID: Ron, 20 years ago on this day, you were NPR's senior Washington editor, meaning that you were overseeing, you were managing the coverage of all Washington news, what was going on in the White House, the Capitol. So I want to know, you know, as you look back on two decades from that day and where you were, what your thoughts were on the remembrances that we're seeing today.

ELVING: The remembrances today focused on the horror and the loss, as properly they should. They were focused on the things that we have remembered and all the changes in the world that we've seen since. And that is what the remembrances should bring back, should recall.

But what it misses is, I think, the great fear and confusion that overwhelmed people, especially in New York and Washington, the belief that there were other attackers coming, the rumors we were hearing while we were trying to do live coverage, rumors that we were hearing that the White House had been hit, was about to be hit, that a plane had been seen cruising down the Mall, the National Mall, toward the Capitol. This kind of thing was, to some degree, easily believed at those moments. And we had seen so much on television. And people were fearful. People were wondering if they should leave every tall building in Washington. And there was a great deal of confusion about what was really happening.

KHALID: So today, at this moment, President Biden is currently in Shanksville, Pa. He's attending ceremonies in all three locations - New York City, Pennsylvania and then later the Pentagon just here outside of Washington, D.C. He's not given any formal remarks, but the White House did release a prerecorded video message from him yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: We also saw something all too rare - a true sense of national unity, unity and resilience, the capacity to recover and repair in the face of trauma, unity in service, the 9/11 generation stepping up to serve and protect in the face of terror.

KHALID: You know, Scott, we heard this desire, this sort of sense of nostalgia for a moment of unity from President Biden. And it feels like that is a common theme we heard also, say, from former President George W. Bush.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GEORGE W BUSH: In the weeks and months following the 9/11 attacks, I was proud to lead an amazing, resilient, united people. When it comes to the unity of America, those days seem distant from our own.

DETROW: Yeah, and really almost anger and disappointment at the moment that the country is in right now. I thought President Bush was really forceful about that. And, you know, you've made some good points that unity is not always a good thing, right? Sometimes it can lead to decisions that are collectively realized as bad decisions.

But I think he was talking about the tone of, are we in this together or are we two separate, warring tribes? And there was a certain togetherness, at least in the early months after September 11, up until the Iraq War I think started to fracture that a little bit.

But, you know, just as an example of that fracture that remains, Tim Lambert, my reporting partner on that Sacred Ground podcast, was sitting up closer with the families due to the fact that he was a landowner. And he told me afterwards that when Vice President Harris began to speak, somebody in the audience - and it was a relatively small audience due to COVID, just mostly family members and close friends and people with ties to the site itself. Somebody out in the audience picked up their chair, turned it around and sat facing backwards, turned their back on the vice president. And I think that's just one of many, many, many examples we can point to of people not even wanting to hear what the other political side has to say right now.

KHALID: Scott, in some ways, what you're describing is so thought-provoking, in part because the message that we heard from Vice President Harris was also a message of unity. And so you're describing this instance where, you know, we are at this point in this country where there's such a sense of disunity even to hear a message of unity.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KAMALA HARRIS: On the days that followed September 11, 2001, we were all reminded that unity is possible in America.

ELVING: So there was a moment of unity, as we've been saying, right after 9/11. There were people singing "God Bless America," and that became part of the ballgame experience of - going forward. But really, that unity, insofar as it lasted for a little while, led to some things that were problematic. And the Patriot Act comes immediately to mind. That was virtually unanimous in Congress, and since then it's been one controversy after another from both directions politically, from the left and from the right. And the unity came apart - let's face it - under the stress of some of the things that we did with that unity in terms of going into Afghanistan and Iraq and then staying there for as long as we did.

KHALID: Well, let's take a quick break, and we'll talk more about how the country has changed since the attacks when we get back.

And we're back. And, Ron and Scott, we have talked a lot about the focus on unity today. You know, President Bush's approval rating was sky-high after the September 11 attacks. I believe it went up to 90%. You had all but one member of Congress, Democrat Barbara Lee of California, vote to go to war in Afghanistan. And yet, you know, as you were suggesting earlier, Ron, I am struck by some of the repercussions of that unity and the degree to which the decisions made by that unity have actually perhaps spurred some of the disunity that we're actually experiencing today.

ELVING: No question in my mind that that's true. We wanted there to be a quick resolution. We wanted revenge, and we wanted it to come quickly and cleanly. And with respect to Afghanistan, the Taliban were rather rapidly overthrown. And in Iraq, we had some degree of early success, so much so that President Bush at that time prematurely advertised mission accomplished. And yet the years went on, the years stretched on. And so much of what has dominated our politics in the last 20 years and the emphasis on division that we see today can find its roots, if you will, all the way back in that unity of 2001.

KHALID: You know, one of the other things that I was struck by was the degree to which domestic disunity has parallels to the sort of violence and external threats that the country felt immediately after September 11. And President Bush, former President Bush, spoke to this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BUSH: And we have seen growing evidence that the dangers to our country can come not only across borders, but from violence that gathers within. There is little cultural overlap between violent extremists abroad and violent extremists at home, 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.

DETROW: That was a pretty forceful moment of the speech. That definitely caused my head to snap up and take notice of when former President Bush made those direct connections.

And again, all summer, I've been talking to these family members of people who died on Flight 93. And we did not get to it in last week's podcast, but there was a common theme that a lot of these people took January 6 very, very personally. They feel like their family members died protecting the U.S. Capitol. They might not have known it was the actual target, but they knew that plane was going somewhere, and they were going to stop the terrorists from getting there. They died to protect that building. And to see people attack the building, to see the violence that happened on January 6, the attacks on the police officers, the destructions of parts of the buildings - that hit them really, really hard. And January 6 was a really tough day for a lot of the people who lost people on Flight 93. So I thought it was a powerful moment for George Bush to make those connections standing in Shanksville today.

KHALID: You know, we're at this point now where trust in institutions is low. Domestic terrorism is now seen as a growing threat in the country. And yet so much of the population in this country came of age after September 11. You know, something that the secretary of defense, Lloyd Austin, said in his remarks at the Pentagon earlier today jumped out at me. He said that a quarter of Americans weren't yet born when these attacks occurred.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LLOYD AUSTIN: Now, almost a quarter of the citizens who we defend today were born after 9/11, and that includes thousands of our outstanding young service members. And many of the 13 brave men and women who just days ago gave their lives to save others in Afghanistan were babies back in 2001.

ELVING: I think that had a lot of impact on people listening to that, realizing that some of the people who were killed - the last 13 in Afghanistan, in Kabul, and many of the others who died there - were too young to have any memories of 9/11 whatsoever. I teach at American University. My students, generally speaking, have no memory other than what they've seen on videotape of 9/11. And yet, their entire lives really have been lived under that shadow and have been shaped by all the conflicts that came out of 9/11. So it is as much a part of their lives as perhaps an earlier generation was shaped by Pearl Harbor.

KHALID: I mean, you're right. So much of life has changed. We didn't even talk about the degree to which there's just infrastructure and institutions in the United States that did not exist in a pre-9/11 world that younger people in this country have no recollection of and no sense of what that world was like.

You know, covering the White House, it became very clear to me how much President Biden, how much this White House wants to essentially wrap up a portion of this chapter of American history, right? They wanted to withdraw ground troops from Afghanistan. They want to recalibrate foreign policy and focus more on, say, cybersecurity and threats emanating from Russia and China. And yet, with the Taliban re-takeover in Afghanistan, it just feels like between that and also the fact that there are just enduring institutions and infrastructure, like TSA, Department of Homeland Security, that are a part of our everyday lives that make it seem like it's not going to be entirely possible to move on from this chapter of American history.

ELVING: Indeed, it is not because all the losses will still be there. All the people we miss will still be missed. All the things we have given up because of 9/11 and the war on terror will still be things that we lack. So this is going to go on defining life, even for people who were not even born at the time and people who have not even been born yet today.

DETROW: And that's why I think even if it's the 20th time that a very similar ceremony is taking place, that's why I think it is important to have these ceremonies. They're like secular religious services at this point. But I think it's really important to just take a pause and take stock of the things about that day that we pushed out of our heads and the ways that that day has changed our lives.

KHALID: All right. Well, let's leave it there for today.

I'm Asma Khalid. I cover the White House.

DETROW: I'm Scott Detrow. I also cover the White House.

ELVING: And I'm Ron Elving, editor-correspondent.

KHALID: And thank you all, as always, for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE STAR-SPANGLED BANNER")

UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (Singing) O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

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