Former President George W. Bush delivered a speech in Shanksville, Pennsylvania on the 20th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
GEORGE W. BUSH: Thank you so much. Laura and I are honored to be with you, Madam Vice President, Vice President Cheney, Governor Wolf, Secretary Haaland and distinguished guests.
Twenty years ago we all discovered, in different ways, in different places, but all at the same time, that our lives would be changed forever. The world was loud with the carnage and sirens, then silent with missing voices that would never be heard again. These lives remain precious to our country and infinitely precious to many of you.
Today we remember your loss, we share your grief, and we honor the men and women you have loved so long and so dearly. For those who are too young to remember that clear September day, it is difficult to describe the mixture of feelings we felt.
There was horror on the scale – there was horror on the scale of destruction and awe of the bravery and kindness that rose to face it. There was a shock to the audacity – the audacity of evil and gratitude for the heroism and decency that stood against it, in the sacrifice of first responders, in helping strangers, in solidarity with sorrow. and of grace, the actions of a revealed enemy, the spirit of a people. And we were proud of our hurt nation.
In these memories, the passengers and crew of Flight 93 must always have a place of honor. Here, the intended targets have become the instruments of rescue. And many of those who are now alive owe an immense and unconscious debt to the challenge displayed in the sky above this field.
It would be a mistake to idealize the experience of these terrible events. All that many people could see at first was the brutal chance of death. All that many could feel was undeserved pain. All that many could hear was the terrible silence of God. There are many who still struggle with a lonely pain that cuts them deep within.
During those fateful hours, we also learned other lessons. We have seen that Americans are vulnerable but not fragile, that they have a core of strength that survives the worst life can bring. We have learned that bravery is more common than we imagined, emerging with sudden splendor in the face of death. We deeply felt how each hour with our loved ones was a temporary and sacred gift. And we’ve found that even the longest days are ending.
Many of us have tried to make spiritual sense of these events. There is no simple explanation for the mixture of providence and human will that defines the direction of our lives. But comfort can come from another kind of knowledge. After wandering for a long time and getting lost in the dark, many have discovered that they are walking step by step towards grace.
As a nation, our adjustments have been profound. Many Americans find it hard to understand why an enemy would hate us so zealously. The security measures built into our lives are both sources of comfort and reminders of our vulnerability. And we have seen more and more evidence that dangers to our country can come not only from borders, but also from the violence that gathers within.
There is little cultural overlap between violent extremists abroad and violent extremists at home. But in their contempt for pluralism, in their contempt for human life, in their determination to defile national symbols, they are the children of the same filthy spirit. And it is our permanent duty to confront them.
After September 11, millions of brave Americans volunteered to serve in the military. The military measures taken over the past 20 years to pursue dangers at their source have sparked debate. But one thing is certain: we owe an assurance to all those who have fought the most recent battles in our country.
Let me speak directly to veterans and people in uniform. The cause you have pursued at the call of duty is the noblest America has to offer. You have put your fellow citizens out of harm’s way. You have stood up for the beliefs of your country and advanced the rights of the oppressed. You have been the face of hope and mercy in dark places. You have been a force for good in the world. Nothing that followed, nothing, can tarnish your honor or diminish your accomplishments. To you and to the honored dead, our country is eternally grateful.
In the weeks and months following the September 11 attacks, I was proud to lead an extraordinary, resilient and united people. When it comes to the unity of America, those days seem distant from ours. Malicious force seems to be at work in our common life, which turns every disagreement into an argument and every argument into a clash of cultures. Much of our politics has become a naked appeal for anger, fear and resentment. This leaves us worried about our nation and our future together.
I come without explanations or solutions. I can only tell you what I saw. On the day of America’s trial and mourning, I saw millions of people instinctively grab hold of one neighbor’s hand and rally to the other’s cause. This is the America I know.
At a time when religious bigotry could have flowed freely, I saw Americans reject prejudice and embrace people of the Muslim faith. This is the nation that I know.
At a time when nativism could have sparked hatred and violence against people perceived as foreigners, I have seen Americans reaffirm their welcome of immigrants and refugees. This is the nation that I know.
At a time when some saw the rising generation as individualistic and decadent, I saw young people embrace an ethic of service and rise to selfless action. This is the nation that I know.
It is not nostalgia. This is the truest version of ourselves. This is what we have been and what we can be again.
Twenty years ago, terrorists randomly selected a group of Americans on a routine robbery as collateral damage in a spectacular act of terror. The 33 passengers and seven crew members of Flight 93 could have been any group of citizens chosen by fate. In a sense, they replaced us all.
Terrorists soon discovered that a random group of Americans is an exceptional group of people. Faced with an impossible circumstance, they comforted loved ones over the phone, prepared for action, and conquered the designs of evil. These Americans were brave, strong, and united in a way that shocked terrorists but shouldn’t surprise any of us. This is the nation we know.
And whenever we need hope and inspiration, we can look up to the sky and remember. God protects you.