WASHINGTON — A solemn President Joe Biden on Saturday marked two decades since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, leading a day of nationwide grief and remembrance at all three sites of the terrorist attacks and emphasizing the importance of memorializing the painful assault that left nearly 3,000 people dead.

Biden deliberately stayed in the background as he participated in the anniversary of the attacks for the first time as the nation’s commander in chief, a milestone that came less than a month after he formally ended the war in Afghanistan launched in response to the attacks.

Biden began his day at the Sept. 11 memorial in Lower Manhattan, alongside dozens of other political dignitaries including former presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. He later traveled to Shanksville, Pa., to meet privately with family members of the victims of Flight 93 and finally, to the National 9/11 Pentagon Memorial in Arlington, Va., to participate in another wreath laying ceremony.

“These memorials are really important,” Biden told reporters in Shanksville. “But they’re also incredibly difficult for the people affected by them, because it brings back the moment they got the phone call, it brings back the instant they got the news, no matter how years go by.”

In comments to reporters in Pennsylvania, Biden also heralded the bravery of passengers who wrestled the hijackers aboard the United Airlines flight, which the terrorists had intended to crash into the U.S. Capitol.

“It’s one thing to say, ‘I know I should step up,’ it’s another thing to do it,” Biden said. “That’s genuine heroism.”

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The events in New York took place under a brilliant blue sky reminiscent of the weather in the city 20 years ago. Wearing a blue ribbon and an American flag on his lapel and a black mask on his face, Biden greeted other former presidents, spoke privately with Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and shook hands with other lawmakers in attendance, including an enthusiastic Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y.

He listened as family members of some of the nearly 3,000 killed in the attacks somberly read their names and moments of silence were held.

Biden chose not to deliver formal remarks as he participated in the memorials. Instead, he delivered a message through a six-minute video released Friday evening, calling for unity amid a time of deep political divisions and paying tribute to the victims of the Sept. 11 attacks. In Shanksville on Saturday, Vice President Kamala Harris delivered remarks that echoed Biden’s message of unity.

“On the days that followed Sept. 11, 2001, we were all reminded that unity is possible in America,” Harris said in Shanksville. “We were reminded, too, that unity is imperative in America. It is essential to our shared prosperity, our national security, and to our standing in the world.”

After concluding her remarks, Harris paused and scanned some of the inscriptions at the Wall of Names memorial, where dozens of white marble stones feature the names of passengers and crew members of Flight 93. She then laid wreaths with some of the families at a private ceremony at the site where the United Airlines plane crashed, known as the Sacred Ground. Biden and first lady Jill Biden later did the same when they visited the rural Pennsylvania memorial.

In his video message, Biden had largely assumed the role of consoler-in-chief, focusing on memorializing the Sept. 11 victims and sharing in the nation’s 20-year grief as he discussed a close friend who lost his eldest son in the terrorist attacks. The war in Afghanistan, and the chaotic final U.S. withdrawal from it last month, were largely unmentioned in the video.

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Asked about it by reporters on Saturday, Biden defended the withdrawal from Afghanistan.

“It’s hard to explain to anybody, how else could you get out,” he said. “For example, if we were in Tajikistan and pulled up a C-130 and said we’re going to let, you know, anybody who was involved with being sympathetic to us to get on the plane, you’d have people hanging in the wheel well. C’mon.”

While in Pennsylvania, Biden also praised the speech delivered by former president George W. Bush, who earlier in Shanksville forcefully warned about the growing threat of domestic terrorism, arguing that it could ultimately be as dangerous as terrorist activities from abroad.

“There is little cultural overlap between violent extremists abroad and violent extremists at home,” Bush said during his remarks. “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, and it is our continuing duty to confront them.”

Meanwhile, in a statement released Saturday morning, Obama praised the “selflessness and courage” of Americans that was evident not just after the Sept. 11 attacks, but in the years since, particularly with the medical professionals caring for the ill amid the pandemic and emergency responders combating natural disasters.

“9/11 reminded us how so many Americans give of themselves in extraordinary ways — not just in moments of great crisis, but every single day,” Obama said. “Let’s never forget that, and let’s never take them for granted.”

Conspicuously absent among the line of former living presidents at formal events was Donald Trump, who instead released a video that spent as much time commemorating the terrorist attacks and its victims as it did criticizing his successors handling of the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan after two decades at war. He later met with firefighters and police officers in an impromptu visit in New York.

“Joe Biden and his inept administration surrendered in defeat,” said Trump, who was also spending the anniversary offering color commentary at a boxing match in Florida featuring former heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield.