The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, changed America in fundamental and profound ways, President Joe Biden said at the Pentagon ceremony marking the attacks that killed 2,977 innocent men, women and children in New York City, Shanksville, Pennsylvania, and the Pentagon.
In the days, months and years that followed the attack, "ordinary Americans responded in extraordinary and unexpected ways," the president said. "I hope we'll remember that in the midst of those dark days, we dug deep, we cared for each other. … We regained the light by reaching out to one another and finding something all too rare, a true sense of national unity. To me, that's the greatest lesson of Sept. 11."
The ceremony at the Pentagon remembered the 184 killed when al-Qaida terrorists turned a passenger aircraft into a guided missile.
"It was an attack on our nation as a whole," Army Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at the ceremony. "It was an attack on the freedom of this nation, an attack on who we are, and what we represent. The terrorists believed that they could destroy us, destroy our values, the values that bind this nation. And they were wrong."
They underestimated the will of the American people, Milley said. They underestimated the idea of America and that "we are all Americans, regardless of where we came from, what our last name is, regardless of the color of our skin or the religion we follow," he said. "[It] doesn't matter if we're male or female. None of that matters. We are all Americans."
The change in America happened instantly at the Pentagon at 9:37 am, when the jet rammed the E-ring of the building and penetrated all the way to the B-ring. Fires erupted. Smoke billowed and suffused the hallways.
Immediately, military and civilian personnel in the building shifted into response mode.
"Our colleagues at the Pentagon risked their own safety to rescue their teammates," said Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III during the ceremony. "They moved rubble with their bare hands. They cleaned wounds with bottled water. They use damp T-shirts as facemasks to shield against the smoke so that they could keep on helping just a little longer.
"One woman was crawling across the second floor trying to escape when she came across a co-worker who had been in the same conference room when the plane hit," he continued. "The coworker did not think that she could keep on going. 'Just get on my back,' the woman said, 'and I will carry you.' And she did.
"Just get on my back, and I will carry you: That is the spirit of the people of this building, and all those who responded at the scene," the secretary said.
The response at the Pentagon was mirrored by Americans all over the country in the days, weeks and months after the attack. "Ordinary Americans volunteered in an extraordinary way to help however they could, including millions who raise their hands to serve in the U.S. military," Austin said. "So today, I want to again thank our men and women in uniform as well as the families who make their service possible. Your sacrifice has ensured that America always stands ready to defend our values, our freedoms and our citizens."
In the 21 years since the attacks, America has continued to hunt down and bring to justice those who launched them. Biden noted that it took a decade to find and kill Osama bin Laden, the leader of al-Qaida. And in July, Biden authorized the successful strike against Ayman al-Zawahiri, who served as bin Laden's deputy during the attacks and the leader of the terror group after bin Laden's death. The president did this "because we will not rest," he said. "We'll never forget. We'll never give up. And now, Zawahiri can never again threaten the American people."
The United States remains committed to deterring any attack on the homeland. "Our intelligence, defense and counterterrorism professionals in the building behind me and across the government continue their vigilance against terrorist threats that have evolved and spread to new regions of the world," he said. "We'll continue to monitor and disrupt those terrorist activities wherever we find them, wherever they exist, and we will never hesitate to do what's necessary to defend the American people."
For all this, the Pentagon ceremony was at its heart a remembrance of those lost. "I know for all those of you who have lost someone, 21 years is both a lifetime and no time at all," the president said. "It's good to remember. These memories help us heal, but they can also open up the hurt, and take us back to that moment when the grief was so raw. You think of everything, everything they could have done if they'd lived and just had a little more time. The experience you missed together, the dreams they never got to fulfill or realize."
In memory of those lost, Austin called on Americans to rededicate themselves to the ideals of the nation. "Today, let us renew our dedication to facing the tests of tomorrow, as our heroes did, with compassion for one another, with love for our great Republic, and with devotion to our democracy," he said. "We will always remember. We will always stand guard over this democracy. And we will always seek to be worthy of those who we lost."