President Barack Obama, commander in chief of the nation’s armed forces, led a remembrance ceremony today at the Pentagon Memorial, 11 years to the day since terrorists crashed passenger jets into the western side of the U.S. defense headquarters, the top stories of the World Trade Center’s towers in New York, and the soil of a field near Shanksville, Pa., killing a total of 2,996 people.
First Lady Michelle Obama, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey and the chairman’s wife, Deanie Dempsey, accompanied the president as he placed a wreath at the memorial.
All bowed their heads, then Dempsey saluted and the rest placed their right hands over their hearts as a Navy bugler sent the sad, slow notes of “Taps” floating through the clear, cool September air.
Then, at 9:37, the exact time in 2001 that American Airlines Flight 77 plowed into the Pentagon’s western faÁade, the ceremony’s announcer asked for a moment of silence in memory of the 184 people – ages 3 to 71 – who died here that day.
Panetta told the crowd, which included friends and families of the 9/11 victims as well as past and current Pentagon employees, that that day forever changed 21st-century America.
The 9/11 attacks, he said, targeted “the symbols of American strength – our economy and our commerce, our military might and our democracy – and took the lives of citizens from more than 90 countries. It was the worst terrorist attack on America in our history.”
Those who died — here, in lower Manhattan or in a Pennsylvania field – whether they were passengers on one of the four planes, workers in the struck buildings or rescue workers, are “heroes forever,” the secretary said.
Panetta told the audience about his visit Sept. 10 to the Flight 93 National Memorial in Shanksville. “I was reminded of those horrible moments after the hijacking when the passengers and crew were able to make frantic calls to speak to their loved ones for the last time,” he said. “They knew what was at stake, and yet they decided to fight back. Together, they took swift and decisive action to stop yet another attack targeted at the nation’s capital.”
The action those passengers took that day, the secretary said, is one end of a chain that links them, their survivors, the nation’s citizens, and the service members who since that day have stepped up to protect freedom and deny terrorism a safe haven.
“Out of the shock and sadness of 9/11 came a new sense of unity and resolve that this would not happen again. … In trying to attack our strengths, the terrorists unleashed our greatest strength: the spirit and the will of Americans to fight for their country,” Panetta said.
Osama bin Laden, the al-Qaida leader who orchestrated the terror, flames and death 9/11, died last year at the hands of American special operations forces. Al Qaeda is still a threat, the secretary said, “but we’ve dealt them a heavy blow, and we will continue to fight them – in Yemen, in Somalia, in North Africa, wherever they go – to make sure they have no place to hide.”
Sept. 11 is now, in America, a day of solemn remembrance, he said.
“Let us renew a solemn pledge to those who died on 9/11 and their families,” the secretary said. “It is a pledge we also make to all of those who put their lives on the line and who paid a heavy price for the last 11 years of war. Our pledge is to keep fighting for a safer and stronger future.”
Our pledge, he continued, is to ensure that America always remains a government of, by and for the people.
“That pledge, that legacy, makes clear that no one – no one – who died on that terrible day 11 years ago died in vain,” Panetta said. “They died for a stronger America.”