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President Biden Visits Each 9/11 Memorial Site On 20th Anniversary

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

President Biden is visiting all three memorial sites today - New York City, Shanksville, Pa., and the Pentagon - on this 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. NPR White House correspondent Asma Khalid joins us. Asma, thanks so much for being with us.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: My pleasure.

SIMON: The president's been busy, hasn't he?

KHALID: That's right. He was in New York City this morning. Then he went on to Shanksville, Pa. That's the crash site of Flight 93. And this afternoon, he'll be at the Pentagon. You know, he's making a point to visit all of these locations, but we are not expecting to hear any formal remarks from him today.

SIMON: The president did release a prerecorded speech last night. What was his central theme?

KHALID: You know, he is known for his ability to empathize with people. And in this message, this video message, he spoke about the pain that families are still feeling 20 years later. He also spoke about the rare moment of national unity that he felt in the country after Sept. 11.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: We learned that unity is the one thing that must never break. Unity is what makes us who we are, America at its best.

KHALID: And, Scott, you know, this comes at a moment when the country is deeply divided over COVID, over masking, over vaccines. There seems to be this nostalgia for unity, though I am struck by this wistfulness for the era of 9/11 unity because critics in the intervening years will say it was that very facade of unity that allowed actions to be taken that, in fact, perhaps helped spur some of the divisions that we see today.

SIMON: We heard about unity from Vice President Harris and also an interesting note struck by former President George W. Bush. Both of them spoke in Shanksville. Tell us about their appearances.

KHALID: Yeah. You know, you mentioned they both spoke about unity, and I will say not just a unity in terms of looking back, but also the need for unity moving forward. The former president, George W. Bush, seemed to be drawing parallels to the threats externally to the threats from within akin to what, you know, specifically we saw with the attack on the Capitol on January 6.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GEORGE W BUSH: There is little cultural overlap between violent extremists abroad and violent extremists at home. But in their disdain for pluralism, in their disregard for human life, in their determination to defile national symbols, they are children of the same foul spirit.

KHALID: And, Scott, that, to me, was just a clear indication of where this president feels, a former Republican president, about the level of disunity between Republicans and Democrats, specifically, you know, again, what we saw earlier this year with the attack on the Capitol. You know, I am struck, though, by as much as there is this desire for unity, that I am a White House correspondent who covers things like the current debate over COVID and masking, and there still seems to be, despite the raw number of deaths that we see daily with COVID, such a sense of partisanship over the very steps needed to help prevent those particular deaths.

SIMON: Well, inevitably, you have to mark on this 20th anniversary there seemed to be, and as you have indicated, you know, sometimes for not the best of reasons, a bipartisan unity 20 years ago about this staggering - about a response to the staggering attack on America. Now you have a staggering pandemic, and so much of it seems to be politicized. It's difficult to find agreement. It must be said even President Biden's own party sometimes can't agree on passing an infrastructure package.

KHALID: You're right. You're right, Scott. I mean, just this week, the president called for mandates, and quickly, we heard Republicans, the Republican National Committee saying that they plan to go to court over that decision. And these are, you know, by all ostensible measures, lifesaving things that are needed to prevent future deaths, and still little agreement on that.

SIMON: NPR White House correspondent Asma Khalid, thanks so much.

KHALID: Happy to do it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.