US presidents Joe Biden, Barack Obama and Bill Clinton all gathered at the site where the World Trade Center towers fell two decades ago in New York in the deadliest terror attack in the country that marked the start of a new era of fear and war.

(L-R) Former President Bill Clinton, former President Barack Obama, former First Lady Michelle Obama, President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden attend the annual 9/11 Commemoration Ceremony on September 11, 2021 in New York City.
(L-R) Former President Bill Clinton, former President Barack Obama, former First Lady Michelle Obama, President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden attend the annual 9/11 Commemoration Ceremony on September 11, 2021 in New York City. (AFP)

The 9/11 anniversary commemoration at ground zero began with a tolling bell and a moment of silence, exactly 20 years after the start of the deadliest terror attack on US soil.

US President Joe Biden, former presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton joined a crowd of victims' relatives and first responders at the September 11 memorial plaza in New York. 

The memorial stands where the World Trade Center’s twin towers were rammed and felled by hijacked planes.

Observances are also planned at the two other sites where the 9/11 conspirators crashed the jets: the Pentagon and a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Biden is scheduled to pay respects at all three places.

The anniversary comes under the pall of a pandemic and in the shadow of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, now ruled by the same group who gave safe haven to the 9/11 plotters.

The attacks killed nearly 3,000 people and marked the start of a new era of fear, war, politics, patriotism and tragedy.

“It’s hard because you hoped that this would just be a different time and a different world. But sometimes history starts to repeat itself and not in the b st of ways,” said Thea Trinidad, who lost her father in the attacks and has signed up to read victims' names at the ceremony at ground zero in New York.

READ MORE: Biden calls for unity as US marks 20th anniversary of 9/11

Biden calls for national unity

In a video released on Friday night, Biden mourned the ongoing losses of 9/11.

“Children have grown up without parents, and parents have suffered without children,” said Biden, a childhood friend of the father of a September 11 victim, Davis Grier Sezna Jr.

But the president also spotlighted what he called the “central lesson” of Sept. 11: “that at our most vulnerable ... unity is our greatest strength.”

Former President George W. Bush, the nation's leader on 9/11, is due at the Pennsylvania memorial and his successor, Barack Obama, at ground zero. 

The only other post-9/11 US president, Donald Trump, plans to be in New York, in addition to providing commentary at a boxing match in Florida in the evening.

Other observances — from a wreath-laying in Portland, Maine, to a fire engine parade in Guam — are planned across a country now full of 9/11 plaques, statues and commemorative gardens.

Age of fear

Using hijacked planes as missiles, the assailants inflicted the deadliest terrorist attacks on US soil, taking nearly 3,000 lives, toppling the twin towers and ushering in an age of fear.

Security was redefined, with changes to airport checkpoints, police practices and the government's surveillance powers. 

In the years that followed, virtually any sizeable explosion, crash or act of violence seemed to raise a dire question: “Is it terrorism?” 

Some ideological violence and plots did follow, though federal officials and the public have lately become increasingly concerned with threats from domestic extremists after years of focusing on international terror groups in the wake of 9/11.

New York faced questions early on about whether it could ever recover from the blow to its financial hub and restore a feeling of safety among the crowds and skyscrapers.

READ MORE: 20 years after 9/11, the ‘War on Terror’ has brought the US only defeat

Did US win its war on terror?

New Yorkers ultimately rebuilt a more populous and prosperous city but had to reckon with the tactics of an empowered post-9/11 police department and a widened gap between haves and have-nots.

A “war on terror” led to invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, where the longest US war ended last month with a hasty, massive airlift punctuated by a suicide bombing that killed 169 Afghans and 13 American service members and was attributed to a branch of the Daesh extremist group.

The US is now concerned that al Qaeda, the terror network behind 9/11, may regroup in Afghanistan.

Two decades after helping to triage and treat injured colleagues at the Pentagon on September 11, retired Army Col. Malcolm Bruce Westcott is saddened and frustrated by the continued threat of terrorism.

“I always felt that my generation, my military cohort, would take care of it — we wouldn’t pass it on to anybody else,” said Westcott, of Greensboro, Georgia. “And we passed it on.”

Any difference after 20 years?

For Angelique Tung, who was at the trade center for a business meeting on 9/11 and escaped down 77 flights of stairs, the US pullout from Afghanistan stirred empathy for troops who served there. 

Some now wonder whether their efforts and sacrifices made a difference, which makes Tung think of a question she has asked herself since surviving September 11.

“I hope that, after 20 years, other people are asking that question: What good can come from this?" said Tung, of Wellesley, Massachusetts.

September 11 propelled a surge of shared grief and common purpose, but it soon gave way.

Hate crimes against Muslims

Muslim Americans endured suspicion, surveillance and hate crimes.

The quest to understand the catastrophic toll of the terror attacks prompted changes in building design and emergency communications, but it also spurred conspiracy theories that seeded a culture of skepticism. 

Schisms and resentments grew over immigration, the balance between tolerance and vigilance, the meaning of patriotism, the proper way to honor the dead, and the scope of a promise to “never forget.”

Trinidad was 10 when she overheard her dad, Michael, saying goodbye to her mother by phone from the burning trade center.

She remembers the pain but also the fellowship of the days that followed, when all of New York “felt like it was family.”

“Now, when I feel like the world is so divided, I just wish that we can go back to that,” said Trinidad, of Orlando, Florida. 

“I feel like it would have been such a different world if we had just been able to hang on to that feeling.”

READ MORE: Through the eyes of a US Marine: Being a Muslim after 9/11

Taliban flag flies at Afghan presidential palace

The Taliban flag fluttered over the Afghan presidential palace on Saturday — the same day the US and the world marked the 9/11 attacks.

Hemad Sherzad, a Taliban fighter and member of the group's cultural council, said the flag at the presidential palace was raised on Friday morning.

The militant group has also painted their white-backdrop banner on the entry gate to the US Embassy building.

The Taliban retook power on August 15, after a lightning offensive that capitalised on the chaotic last weeks of the 20-year US-led occupation.

In a sign that things were returning to normal, Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) said it would resume flights to Kabul from Monday, the first foreign commercial service since the Taliban seized power last month.

And in a carefully orchestrated publicity stunt, hundreds of fully veiled women staged a rally at a Kabul university to profess support for the Taliban, just days after public protests against their rule were banned.

'Made us suffer'

Unconfirmed reports had circulated all week that the Taliban may use the September 11 anniversary to swear in their new government, but the day unfolded without formal recognition.

"This is a day for America, not for Afghanistan," said Muhammad Alzoad, a bank clerk.

"This was nothing to do with Afghanistan, but it made us suffer."

The attacks against the United States were planned by Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden, who had taken refuge in Afghanistan after the Taliban took power in 1996.

When the Taliban refused to hand him over, the US led a massive invasion and installed a new government that became utterly dependent on Western aid and support for survival.

The Taliban have promised a milder form of rule this time, but have moved swiftly to crush dissent – firing in the air to disperse protests by women last week calling for the right to education and work.

READ MORE: UN warns Taliban-led Afghanistan needs funds to prevent collapse

Source: TRTWorld and agencies