Remarks at a Wreath-Laying Ceremony at the Pentagon Memorial in Arlington, Virginia
Secretary Austin, General Milley, to all the families and loved ones who still feel the ache of that missing piece of your soul: I'm honored to be here with you once more to share this solemn rite of remembrance and to reflect on all that was lost in the fire and ash on that terrible September morning and all that we found in ourselves to respond.
Twenty-one years ago—21 years—and still we kept our promise: Never forget. And we'll keep the memory of all those precious lives stolen from us: 2,977—at Ground Zero in New York; in Shanksville, where my wife is speaking now, in Pennsylvania; 184 of them here at the Pentagon. And I know, for all those of you who have lost someone, 21 years is both a lifetime and no time at all.
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 that they could have done if they had lived and just had a little more time, the experience you missed together, the dreams they never got to fulfill or realize.
I remember a message sent to the American people from Queen Elizabeth. It was on September 11. Her Ambassador read a prayer of service at Saint Thomas Church in New York, where she poignantly reminded us, quote, "Grief is the price we pay for love."
Grief is the price we pay for love. Many of us have experienced that grief, and you've all experienced it. And on this day, when the price feels so great, Jill and I are holding all of you close to our hearts.
Terror struck us on that brilliant blue morning. The air filled with smoke, and then came the sirens and the stories: stories of those we lost, stories of the incredible heroism from that terrible day.
The American story—the American story—itself changed that day. But what we did change—what we will not change, what we cannot change, never will, is the character of this Nation that the terrorists thought they could wound.
And what is that character? The character of sacrifice and love, of generosity and grace, of strength and resilience.
In the crucible of 9/11, in the days and months that followed, we saw what stuff America is made—Americans are made of. Think of all of your loved ones, particularly those on that flight, ordinary citizens who said, "We will not let this stand," risked and lost their lives so even more people would not die.
We saw it in the police officers and firefighters who stood on the pile at Ground Zero for months amid that twisted steel and broken concrete slabs, breathing the toxins and ash that would damage their health, refusing—refusing—to stop the search through the destruction. They never stopped and would not.
We learned about the extraordinary courage and resolve, as I said, of the passengers on board Flight 93, who understood that they were living the open—they were there in the middle of the open shot of a new war, and who chose to fight back—not professionals—to sight—fight back, sacrificing themselves, refusing to let their plane be used as a weapon against even more innocents.
And here at the Pentagon, which was both the scene of the horrific terrorist attack and the command center for our response to defend and protect the American people, so many heroes were made here. So many of your loved ones were those heroes.
It began almost immediately, with civilians and servicemembers leaping to action as the walls collapsed and the roof began to crumble. They raced into the breach between the fourth and fifth corridors.
The impact created by the fire raged at twice the heights of this building. I remember. I was a U.S. Senator walking up to my office, and I could see the smoke and flames. They were heroes. They went back into those soaring flames to try to save their teammates. Firefighters battled the blaze of jet fuel long into the night, pushing past the bounds of exhaustion.
Pentagon staff showed up to work on September 12 more determined than ever to keep their country secure. As I said when I was up on 9/11, we will follow them to the gates of hell to be sure that they're not able to continue. And millions of young men and women from across the Nation responded to 9/11 attacks with courage and resolve, signing up to defend our Constitution and joining the greatest fighting force in the history of the world.
And in the years since 9/11, hundreds of thousands of American troops have served in Afghanistan, Iraq, and so many other places around the world to deny terrorists a safe haven and to protect the American people.
And to all our servicemembers and their families, our veterans, our Gold Star families, all the survivors and caregivers and loved ones who have sacrificed so much for our Nation: We owe you. We owe you an incredible—an incredible—debt, a debt that can never be repaid. But we'll never fail to meet the sacred obligation to you to properly prepare and equip those that we send into harm's way and care for those and their families when they come home, and to never, ever, ever forget.
Through all that has changed over the last 21 years, the enduring resolve of the American people to defend ourselves against those who seek us harm, and to deliver justice to those responsible for the attacks against our people, has never once faltered.
It took 10 years to hunt down and kill Usama bin Laden, but we did. And this summer, I authorized a successful strike on Zawahiri, the man who bin Laden—was his deputy on 9/11 and was the leader of Al Qaida. Because we will not rest. We'll never forget. We'll never give up. And now Zawahiri can never again threaten the American people.
And 20 years after, Afghanistan is over, but our commitment to preventing another attack on the United States is without end. Our intelligence and defense and counterterrorism professionals in the building behind me and across the Government continue their vigilance against terrorist threats that has evolved and spread to new regions of the world. We'll continue to monitor and disrupt those terrorist activities wherever we find them, wherever they exist. And we'll never hesitate to do what's necessary to defend the American people.
What was destroyed, we have repaired. What was threatened, we fortified. What was attacked—the indominable spirit—has never, ever wavered.
We raised monuments and memorials to the citizens whose blood sacrificed on these grounds and in Shanksville and Ground Zero to keep touch of the memory—keep it bright for all the decades to come. When future generations come here to sit in the shade of the maple trees that shelter the memorial and grown tall and strong with passing years, they will find the names of patriots. They will feel the connection that will come to pass on September 11, 2001, and how our country was forever changed.
And I hope they will think about all those of—all those heroes that were more [made]* in the hours and days and years that followed. Ordinary Americans responding in extraordinary and unexpected ways. I hope we'll remember that in the midst of these dark days, we dug deep, we cared for each other, and we came together.
You know, 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 September 11. Not that we will never again face a setback, but that in the moment of great unity we also had to face down the worst impulses: fear, violence, recrimination directed against Muslim Americans, as well as Americans of Middle Eastern and South Asian heritage.
It's that, for all our flaws and disagreements, in the push and pull of all that makes us human, there is a nation that cannot accomplish—there's nothing this Nation cannot accomplish when we stand together and defend with all our hearts that which makes us unique in the world: our democracy.
We're not only a nation based on principles, but we are based on an idea unlike—we're the most unique nation in the world. An idea that everyone is created equal and should be treated equally throughout their lives.
We don't always live up to it, but we've never walked away from it. That's what makes us strong. That's what makes us who we are. And that's what those hijackers most hoped to destroy when they targeted our buildings and our people.
They failed. No terrorist could touch the wellspring of American power. And it falls to us to keep it safe on behalf of all those we lost 21 years ago, on behalf of all those who have given their whole souls to the cause of this Nation every day since.
That's a job for all of us. It's not enough to gather and remember each September 11 those we lost more than two decades ago. Because on this day, it is not about the past, it's about the future.
We have an obligation, a duty, a responsibility to defend, preserve, and protect our democracy, the very democracy that guarantees the rights of freedom that those terrorists on 9/11 sought to bury in the burning fire and smoke and ash. And that takes a commitment on the part of all of us—dedication, hard work—every day.
For always remember: The American democracy depends on the habits of the heart of "We the People." That's how our Constitution—"We the People." The habits of heart of "We the People." It's not enough to stand up for democracy once a year or every now and then. It's something we have to do every single day.
So this is a day not only to remember, but a day of renewal and resolve for each and every American in our devotion to this country, to the principles it embodies, to our democracy. That is who [what]* we owe those who remember today, that is what we owe one another, and that is what we owe future generations of Americans to come. I have no doubt we will do this. We will meet this significant responsibility. We'll secure our democracy together as one America, the United States of America. That's who we are. That's who your loved ones were and why they gave so much.
Thank you. May God bless you all, and may God honor the members of the military we lost and all those we lost here on 9/11. And may God protect our troops.
NOTE: The President spoke at 9:49 a.m. In his remarks, he referred to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark A. Milley, USA.
* White House correction.
Joseph R. Biden, Remarks at a Wreath-Laying Ceremony at the Pentagon Memorial in Arlington, Virginia Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/357824