September 22, 2021

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Secretary Antony J. Blinken at a Ceremony to Commemorate the 20th Anniversary of the September 11, 2001 Terrorist Attacks

17 min read

Antony J. Blinken, Secretary of State

Ambassador Bonnie Denise Jenkins, Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security

Washington, D.C.

Dean Acheson Auditorium

AMBASSADOR JENKINS: Good morning. Welcome to State Department staff (inaudible), our diplomatic and foreign policy community, both those here in person and those participating virtually. I want to especially acknowledge the presence of our active duty and reserve personnel: veterans, members of Veterans-at-State Affinity Group, of which I serve as the leadership liaison, and members of the Mosaic, the department’s employee affinity group who are employees identifying as Muslim and those interested in Muslim cultures.

Today, we come together to honor the nearly 3,000 people who were killed in the terrorist attacks on September 11th, 2001. We join families all over the world that lost their loved ones in New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. It is a day that many of us will never forget, one of those powerful historic moments where you know exactly where you were and what you were doing the moment you learned of the attacks.

It is equally important to recognize how much the world has changed the moment American Airlines Flight 11 struck the North Tower on that clear Tuesday morning. Not only did it mobilize the will of America; it galvanized people and nations around the world toward the common goal of denying terrorism a safe haven.

Before returning to the Department of State in 2009, I served both in the U.S. Air Force and Naval Reserve for 22 years and as counsel on the 9/11 Commission. It was both my duty and responsibility as an American and a New York native to be able to join others on the commission, to tell the story of 9/11 as best we could, and of those we honor today who lost their lives or those who continue to suffer the impact of these heinous attacks on their everyday existence.

Before beginning our program, I would first like to ask that we stand and take a moment of silence in remembrance of all those who lost their lives and their loved ones still in mourning.

(A moment of silence was observed.)

AMBASSADOR JENKINS: Thank you. I hope that the voices we hear this morning will convey the many ways in which members of our community have been impacted by the 9/11 attacks on a personal level. On this day, like every year, we stand strong, we stand united. You will now hear several personal reflections, first from Deputy Assistant Secretary Chris Gu from the Bureau of Diplomatic Security, followed by Ms. Chaiszar Turner, the president of Veterans at State, Ambassador Matthew Klimow who was serving in the Pentagon on 9/11, and finally, our own Secretary of State, Antony Blinken.

(Program continues.)

SECRETARY BLINKEN: Good morning, everyone. And thank you all so much for being here today. It is an honor to join today’s speakers to mark the 20th anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks. I have to say to both the ambassador, to you, Chris, thank you for your powerfully evocative remarks. I think in different ways both of you brought us back to that day, brought us back to what so many of us were feeling, and brought us back to the remarkable spirit that actually joined us and united us in ways that I think we can find inspiration in for every day going forward.

We come together first and foremost to honor the people we lost on that horrific day, nearly 3,000 men, women, children in New York, in Arlington, in Shanksville. For their loved ones, the pain from the loss began on 9/11; they’ve felt it every day since. Some members of our community lost family and friends that day; our hearts go out to all of you.

Every one of those losses sent ripples that radiated outward. The stories of those who died were told around the world – restaurant workers on breakfast shifts, kids flying to Disneyland, firefighters, and police officers who, as we all know, ran into the building after the planes hit. People from more than 90 countries lost their lives that day – every one of them someone’s child, someone’s parents, someone’s sibling, someone’s friend.

Chris Gu’s account is so vivid and painful. For many of us – even if we weren’t in New York or Virginia that day, even if we were on the other side of the world – it felt somehow deeply personal. And I think it still does.

For those of you who were working at the State Department, the memories are just as vivid. Some of you were in the building that day. You evacuated and saw the smoke rising from the Pentagon. For a while, people thought that there could be a car bomb nearby, and DS agents made sure that everyone got out.

You showed up for work the next morning, as we heard, not yet fully knowing what had happened or what would be required of you in the days, weeks, months, and years ahead, but ready to do whatever your country asked of you.

Around the world, we saw people come forward to show their extraordinary solidarity and empathy. They congregated outside our embassies, consulates – praying, singing, crying. They left handwritten notes, flowers, candles, drawings, mementos.

Outside our embassy in Sydney, the New South Wales Rural Fire Service left a helmet that their firefighters had signed for American first responders. And it read: “To all stations: Come home safe.”

In Ethiopia, so many people left flowers at the base of the embassy’s flagpole that that pile of flowers rose a third of the way up the flagpole.

Amid the hundreds of letters and signs left outside Embassy Berlin was a handwritten note that read: “Kennedy said, ‘I am a Berliner.’ We say, ‘We are Americans.’”

As we saw that day, our allies’ and partners’ commitment to us, and ours to them, is a sacred bond that goes much deeper than relationships between governments. It’s a bond our peoples have built over many generations.

9/11 was, to understate, one of the darkest days in our history – but out of it also came these demonstrations of profound humanity, compassion, strength, and courage.

Above all, it showed our remarkable resilience.

It showed our capacity to defend the pluralism that has long been one of our country’s greatest strengths, including by embracing our Muslim American brothers and sisters. It showed the risks that so many are willing to take to save the lives of complete strangers. So today, we remember all that, and more.

We’ve also come together today because – maybe more than any other event in our lifetimes – 9/11 shaped the trajectory of our country and how we engage in the world. It motivated an entire generation to pursue lives of service. Some became journalists, lawyers, human rights defenders. Others volunteered for the military; hundreds of thousands went on to serve in Afghanistan. 2,641 service members gave their lives in that conflict, including 13 men and women who were killed in a terrorist attack a few weeks ago as we brought that war to an end. More than 20,000 of those service members were injured, many with invisible wounds. We’re humbled by the sacrifices that they made. And we know that, for veterans in particular – as I know Chaiszar Turner was going to tell us – this anniversary will be an especially emotional one, inspiring both pride but also pain.

September 11th also inspired a generation of people to join this institution, the State Department. Those new officers walked into this building, I think, having some sense of how hard the work would be, how much we were up against, how vital it was that they succeed. But, of course, a full appreciation for all of that came with time, came with experience, came with engagement -but from day one, they threw themselves into the challenges with total commitment.

Looking around this department today, we can see how the attacks changed us and changed our diplomacy. Thousands of diplomats served in Afghanistan and Iraq – and elsewhere in support of the war against al-Qaida and other terrorist groups. Thousands more served in new bureaus and roles that didn’t exist before the attacks, like counterterrorism, conflict and stabilization. Virtually every part of the department was mobilized in some way to play a role in preventing another 9/11 – critical work that many of us continue to this day. Cherished members of our Foreign Service gave their lives to these efforts. Today, we honor them as well.

Part of our job, part of our responsibility as diplomats is to perpetually reflect on how we engage with the rest of the world and to ask some very basic questions: Are we making our nation safer, more secure? Are we advancing our interests? Are we living up to our values? Are we focusing too much on some threats, and not enough on others? Are we missing opportunities?

We were asking those questions then. We have a responsibility to continue asking them now – to more effectively tackle the challenges that we face today, to try and see around the corner to the crises and challenges of tomorrow, to make sure we’re doing all we can to deliver for our fellow citizens.

Whether you were part of the team that was there when the attacks occurred, whether you joined because of those attacks, or whether you came here for some other reason altogether, what we all have in common is that, deep down, we feel a calling: to try to do right by our fellow Americans, to try to make their lives just a little bit more secure, a little bit more prosperous, a little healthier, with a little more opportunity. And we want to engage the world in a way that makes their lives, and our lives, and the world better. Wherever we serve, whatever the challenge or crisis, we’ve chosen diplomacy as our tool to make that world a little bit better.

You have to be 20 years old to register for the Foreign Service Officer Test. So, what does that mean? It means that, starting tomorrow, the first volunteers born after 9/11 will start the process of becoming Foreign Service officers. I can’t wait to welcome them to this community. They will help make the State Department even stronger, more diverse, and more ready to take on the challenges of our time.

In hearing from Foreign Service officers and civil servants who were serving September 11th, one thing they often talk about is how – no matter how wrenching and terrifying those first moments and first days felt – they appreciated that they were in a place to do something about it. And it goes back to what Chris was saying. At first, I think so many of us had a feeling of helplessness, but then – then that instinct that brings us together really clicked in, and we realized we could do something. And those of us in this community did do something. They appreciated, we appreciated, that we were in a place to do something about it. We had jobs, they had jobs where they could help their fellow citizens and their country, in ways both immediate and lasting. That’s an extraordinary privilege. And it’s one that all of us in this department have right now as well.

So, on this day of all days, we remember that privilege – and the responsibility as well as the opportunity that comes with it.

Thank you very much.

(Applause.)

AMBASSADOR JENKINS: Thank you, Mr. Secretary, for your words. Thank you for our other speakers, and to Chaiszar Turner, who wasn’t able to speak, we also thank you for your service. And we also thank those individuals – our embassies overseas who are also commemorating this day. I also want to thank all of you for coming, and – coming together today in service and remembrance. As we all return to work, let us hold the spirit of this day in our hearts and honor the memory of the fallen in our words and in our actions.

That concludes our program. Thank you for your time and attention on this solemn day.

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