Breaking with tradition, Biden commemorates 9/11 attacks in Alaska

President Joe Biden speaks at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson to mark the anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Monday, Sept. 11, 2023, in Anchorage, Alaska. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
President Biden speaks at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage to mark the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. (Evan Vucci / Associated Press)

President Biden, fresh off a four-day trip to Asia, marked the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on Monday by honoring service members and first responders in Alaska.

"We'll never forget that when faced with evil, when an enemy sought to tear us apart, we endured," Biden told a crowd of more than 1,000 people at a cavernous hangar on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage.

This year marks the 22nd anniversary of the day that Al Qaeda terrorists hijacked two commercial flights and crashed the planes into the World Trade Center's twin towers in lower Manhattan. A third plane barreled into the Pentagon, and passengers overtook hijackers on a fourth plane before it crash-landed into an open field in Shanksville, Pa.

The 11th Airborne Division band boomed as Air Force One touched down Monday afternoon. Inside the hangar, rows of troops — some of whom were not yet born when the planes crashed into the twin towers — listened as Biden, standing in front of an oversized American flag and next to a CH-47 Chinook helicopter, emphasized the base's importance to U.S. national security.

"We know that on this day 22 years ago, [planes] from this base were scrambled on high alert to escort planes through the airspace," Biden said, linking the facility to the terrorist attacks that happened 3,000 miles away. "Alaskan communities opened their doors to stranded passengers."

Biden and his predecessors have typically marked the anniversary of the terrorist attacks at one of the three sites where nearly 3,000 people died in New York, Virginia and Pennsylvania. But the president's trip to India for the Group of 20 summit and Vietnam meant he would reach U.S. soil only in time for a West Coast stop.

Instead, several Biden administration officials fanned out across Sept. 11 memorial sites to mark the anniversary. Vice President Kamala Harris attended the ceremony at the National September 11 Memorial in New York City. Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro N. Mayorkas and United Nations Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield also attended the New York commemoration, as did Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican presidential candidate, and former New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani.

Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III hosted an observance ceremony at the National 9/11 Pentagon Memorial in Virginia, where First Lady Jill Biden placed a wreath.

Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff attended the memorial in Pennsylvania. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Denis McDonough also attended a National Day of Service event at the department's Baltimore National Cemetery in Maryland.

The president sought to connect his visit abroad to the mournful occasion, telling the troops he had been especially thinking about Sept. 11 victims during his trip to Asia.

"These trips are a central part of how we're going to ensure the United States is flanked by the broadest array of allies and partners who will stand with us," he said. "To build a world that is safer for all of our children — something that today, of all days, is a reminder is not a given."

Biden praised members of the military and first responders deployed in the days after the terrorist attacks and those who continue to serve, calling them the "soul of the nation."

He used the occasion to call for national unity, urging Americans to put aside their political differences.

"It's more important than ever that we come together around the principle of American democracy, regardless of our political backgrounds," he said. "American democracy does not depend on some of us, but on all of us. American democracy depends on habits of the heart."

The president concluded his remarks by recalling his relationship with the late Sen. John McCain, whom he honored earlier Monday at his final stop in Vietnam, the Arizona senator's memorial in Hanoi.

Standing next to Truc Bach Lake, Biden had paid respects to his longtime friend, dropping a challenge coin at his memorial site and saluting a Marine and a Navy officer who stood on each side.

"One thing I always admired about John was how he put duty to country first," Biden told the troops in Alaska as he finished his remarks.

McCain was a reminder to "never lose that sense of national unity," the president said. "Let that be the common cause of our time."

McCain, who died of brain cancer in 2018, was a Navy lieutenant commander who was shot down during the Vietnam War in 1967. He spent five years as a prisoner of war at the notorious "Hanoi Hilton" prison.

"I miss him," Biden told reporters in Hanoi as U.S. climate envoy and former secretary of State John Kerry, who served in the Vietnam War, and Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken stood nearby. "He was a good friend."

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.