The US marked the 20th anniversary of 9/11 on September 11 with pleas for unity at solemn ceremonies given added resonance by the messy withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan and return to power of the Taliban.
At the 9/11 memorial in New York City, relatives wiped away tears, their voices breaking as they read out the names of the almost 3,000 people killed in the 2001 al-Qaeda attacks, the deadliest in history.
“We love you and we miss you,” they said as sombre violin music played at the official ceremony, attended by President Joe Biden and former presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton.
The service at Ground Zero where 2,753 people died – some of whom jumped to their deaths from the burning towers – took place under tight security, with the Lower Manhattan business district effectively locked down.
The first of six moments of silence was marked at 8:46am (1246 GMT), with a bell ringing to symbolise the time the first hijacked plane crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Centre (WTC).
At 9:03am, attendees stood still again to mark the moment the South Tower was struck. At 9:37am, it was the Pentagon, where the hijacked airliner killed 184 people in the plane and on the ground.
At 9:59am, the moment the South Tower fell. At 10:03am, they remembered the fourth plane that crashed in a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, after passengers fought the hijackers. And at 10:28am, the North Tower falling.
Mourners clutched photos of their loved ones, their pain still raw despite a whole generation having grown up since the morning of September 11, 2001.
“It feels like it was yesterday. Every year [that] we get further away it becomes more important to remember,” said Joanne Pocher-Dzama, whose brother died at the WTC.
Bruce Springsteen performed I’ll See You in My Dreams and smaller ceremonies across New York remembered the 343 firefighters who lost their lives saving others. After nightfall, twin light beams were to be projected into the sky.
Heart-wrenching commemorations also took place at the Pentagon and the borough of Shanksville, where George W Bush, president on 9/11, said the unity the US showed following the attacks “seems distant” from today.
“So much of our politics has become a naked appeal to anger, fear and resentment. That leaves us worried about our nation and our future together,” he added.
World leaders sent messages of solidarity, saying the attackers had failed to destroy Western values.
In a video posted on the eve of the anniversary, Biden urged US citizens to come together.
“Are we going to, in the next four, five, six, 10 years, demonstrate that democracies can work, or not?” he asked on September 11 in Shanksville.
But former president Donald Trump shattered the sentiment, releasing a video slamming the “inept administration” of Biden for its “incompetence” over the Afghan withdrawal, and later telling New York police officers that the US had been “embarrassed.”
The memorials come less than two weeks since the last soldiers left Kabul, ending the so-called “forever war”.
But national discord over the chaotic exit, including the deaths of 13 US troops in a suicide bomb and the return to power of al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden’s protectors the Taliban, overshadowed what was supposed to be a pivotal day in Biden’s nearly eight-month-old presidency.
Again he defended the withdrawal, saying the US could not “invade” every country where al-Qaeda is present, before he concluded his tour of all three attack sites at the Pentagon.
On the other hand, China Daily EU Bureau chief Chen Weihua criticised the US for misleading the public about its “war on terror” and its failure to commemorate the innocent Muslim lives lost in the ensuing decades-long US-led military campaigns.
“The entire world’s sympathy was with the US in 2001,” he said. But “the innocent civilians killed in Afghanistan and Iraq and many other Muslim countries in US bombings and drone attacks far outnumber those who perished in the 9/11 attacks.
“Yet they hardly hit the headlines in the Western media, let alone necessitating the construction of a memorial. Many US politicians have disdainfully described the victims as ‘collateral damage’.
“US politicians like to lecture the world, but the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks should also be a time to mourn all the innocent victims of US strikes and learn the lessons from the past 20 years, especially given the dramatic change in Afghanistan,” Chen added.
In the last 20 years, Osama bin Laden has been killed and a new skyscraper dubbed the “Freedom Tower” has risen over the borough of Manhattan, replacing the Twin Towers.
But the consequences of 9/11 rumble on.
In Guantanamo Bay, accused mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four other men continue to await trial, nine years after charges were filed.
And only last week Biden ordered the release of classified documents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) probe over the next six months.
For many in the US, 9/11 remains about one thing – loss.
“So many families were disrupted. And we just need to let them know that all those people are not forgotten,” said Mark Papadimitriou, paying his respects in Times Square.
AFP, CHINA DAILY/Asia News Network