Hundreds of people including Minnesota veterans, first responders, Gold Star families and political leaders gathered at the state Capitol on Saturday morning to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
Amid wreath-laying, patriotic songs, an F-16 flyover and other ceremonies, a host of speakers shared their memories of the attacks, the victims, and the long years of war that followed Sept. 11. Speaker after speaker praised the bravery of people who charged forward into danger on 9/11 and afterwards.
“While I sat in my high school classroom, my father was engaged in a fight for his life and a fight for the future of his nation,” said Mariah Jacobsen, the daughter of Tom Burnett, a passenger on United Airlines Flight 93 who resisted that plane’s hijackers.
Jill Stephenson, whose son died while fighting in Afghanistan after being inspired to join the military on Sept. 11, said there was one overriding question 20 years later: “Have we forgotten?”
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“I haven't,” Stephenson said. “9/11 stole my son's future. His life book ended at year 21. But not before he gave up his future to make the world better for people halfway across the globe, and for the six men that were fighting the Taliban by his side.”
In between the speeches Saturday, the ceremony paid tribute to the nearly 3,000 people who died on Sept. 11, 2001, including seven Minnesotans. Another 109 Minnesota service members died in action in subsequent fighting over the past two decades, Minnesota’s Commissioner of Veterans Affairs Larry Herke said.
Minnesota’s poet laureate, Gwen Westerman, expressed her feelings by reading “The Names” by Billy Collins, an elegy for the names of those who died on Sept. 11 — “names written in the pale sky,” “names silent in stone or cried out behind a door.”
“So many names,” the poem concludes, “there is barely room on the walls of the heart.”
Other speakers reflected on the indelible experiences of that September day, when everyone, wherever they were — from classrooms to offices to homes — was transfixed and horrified by the attacks.
One common memory was of a brief period of national unity as the nation came together after the attacks.
“We were united,” said Gov. Tim Walz. “I'm not saying we all thought the same, I’m not saying we all agreed on anything. But we understood the things that united us were far greater than those that divided us.”
The 20-year commemoration was overshadowed by last month’s chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, a conflict launched in response to Sept. 11.
The event’s keynote speaker was retired Army Gen. Joseph Votel, a native of St. Paul who led the United States Central Command from 2016 to 2019. He urged listeners to not let the ending of the war in Afghanistan diminish the sacrifices made by service members in the long years of combat.
“I think it is essential for Americans to appreciate this point, especially now against a cacophony of voices suggesting that these sacrifices may have been in vain,” Votel said. “They have not been. Their service and sacrifice mattered then, and it matters now. We cannot allow the story of the beginning or the ending to overtake or diminish the stories in between.”