Twenty years after hijacked passenger jets slammed into the towers of the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in Shanksville, Pa., the nation will pause to commemorate the deadliest attack in its history.
Though the country has come together even during its most divided moments to remember the loss of nearly 3,000 people, the ceremonies today will be particularly poignant. Over time, the attacks have receded from memory and moved into history. An entire generation has been born in the shadow of Sept. 11, only receiving its legacy secondhand.
The anniversary also arrives as the United States is in the throes of another life-changing national loss: a pandemic that has claimed more than 656,000 lives, upended the economy and exposed gaping fault lines in the fabric of American life. In the last week, as many Americans have died of complications from the virus every two days as perished in one fell swoop on 9/11.
And the United States has only just closed the chapter on a costly and devastating war that sprang from 9/11’s wake: a 20-year occupation in Afghanistan that began as a hunt for the terrorists who oversaw the attacks and ultimately ended with 170,000 lives lost — more than 2,400 of them Americans — and the same Taliban militants in power there. More than 100,000 Iraqis and 4,400 Americans were killed in the war in Iraq, also waged in the aftermath of 9/11.
President Biden, who as a senator on 9/11 sought desperately to soothe a panicking country, will start the day by traveling to a New York that bears fresh scars from the coronavirus.
“To the families of the 2,977 people from more than 90 nations killed on Sept. 11 in New York City, Arlington, Virginia and Shanksville, Pennsylvania, and the thousands more who were injured, America and the world commemorate you and your loved ones,” Mr. Biden said in pre-taped remarks. “The pieces of your soul.”
Mr. Biden will first head to ground zero — once a horrifying pile of rubble, now a placid memorial — where families of the victims will converge to honor their loved ones at the place where their lives came to an end.
There, the families will read the names of the victims of the attacks, pausing for moments of silence at the times when the hijacked planes hit their targets and when the twin towers fell. Church bells will ring as the city quiets.
In Shanksville, Pa., former President George W. Bush, who was commander in chief when the attacks took place, will speak to the family members of the crew and passengers of United Airlines Flight 93, who fought back against the terrorists who had hijacked their flight and diverted it from their intended target in Washington.
Mr. Bush, whose legacy has been under renewed scrutiny as the war he began in Afghanistan met an unsuccessful end, will be joined by Vice President Kamala Harris. Mr. Biden and the first lady, Jill Biden, will later arrive in Shanksville for a wreath-laying ceremony there.
At the Pentagon, a flag will be unfurled on the building’s west side, where a plane struck. Lloyd J. Austin III, the defense secretary, and Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, will participate in a morning ceremony to remember the 184 people killed there. Mr. Biden, Ms. Harris and their spouses will later participate in a wreath-laying ceremony to honor the victims.
Throughout the day, there will be other commemorations both small and large around the United States, where moments of silence will be observed and flags in many places will be flown at half-staff, as is custom for collective mourning.
As night falls in New York, the Tribute in Light, in which two columns of light shoot into the sky from the area near ground zero, will shine again. The beams, typically visible for a radius of up to 60 miles and extending four miles into the sky, replicate the shape of the Twin Towers that were destroyed in the attacks.