From the White House to Capitol Hill to the Pentagon -- and at countless ceremonies around the country -- Wednesday brought a solemn step back from the frenetic campaign for U.S. military action in Syria and an acknowledgment of the terrorist attacks that shook the entire nation to its core 12 years ago today.
President Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and Dr. Jill Biden, along with members of their staffs, began the day by marking the anniversary of the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, first with a moment of silence on the South Lawn of the White House and then, for the president, a wreath-laying ceremony and speech at the Pentagon Memorial.
Speaking to a crowd of dignitaries and families of Sept. 11 victims, Obama declared the anniversary a moment for prayer, public service and thanksgiving, especially for the survivors who have "taught us all there's no trouble we cannot endure and there's no calamity we cannot overcome."
"Even more than memorials of stone and water, your lives are the greatest tribute to those that we lost, for their legacy shines on in you," Obama said. "When you smile just like him, when you toss your hair just like her, when you foster scholarships and service projects that bear the name of those we lost and make a better world; when you join the firehouse or you put on the uniform or you devote yourself to a cause greater than yourself, just like they did, that's a testimony to them."
Elsewhere in Washington, lawmakers -- many with small American flags tucked into the pockets of their suit jackets -- filed onto the steps of the U.S. Capitol in the late summer heat to honor the victims of the Sep. 11 attacks.
With hundreds of members of Congress packing the Capitol steps before a somber crowd of tourists, staffers and journalists, Congressional leaders evoked the memories of those killed in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Shanksville, Pa.
"The word 'weary' has been used a great deal of late. But if you think about the men and women we honor at this hour, the fear that they endured and cast off, the love that they wished to be remembered for, the instinct to lock arms and to help the person next to them, the bravery it took to run up the stairwells and charge that cockpit, the prayers that they whispered together, the last word that comes to mind is the word 'weary,'" House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said. "Yes, we've been through the crucible, and we live in a dangerous world. But from the fallen and from all who have sacrificed so that we may live free, we can take heart that ours is the greatest cause and the work before us is not above our capacity or beyond our strength. After all, we are Americans."
On Wednesday, President Obama also paid tribute to the four victims of the assault on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, exactly one year ago.
"We pray for all those who've stepped forward in those years of war, diplomats who serve in dangerous posts, as we saw this day last year in Benghazi," Obama said, "intelligence professionals, often unseen and unheralded, who protect us in every way, our men and women in uniform who defend this country that we love."
On Sept. 11, 2012, insurgents with ties to al Qaeda killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens, Sean Smith, Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods. None of the assailants have been arrested or brought to justice.
While Obama did not explicitly mention the crisis in Syria or the standoff over Bashar al-Assad's chemical weapons, he did make fleeting reference to the need to sometimes give diplomacy a chance when confronting threats to U.S. security.
"As long as there are those who would strike our citizens, we will stand vigilant and defend our nation," Obama said. "Let us have the wisdom to know that while force is at times necessary, force alone cannot build the world we seek."
In a rare prime-time address to the nation on Tuesday, Obama said he was delaying a push for a congressional vote on U.S. military force against Syria to allow time to explore a Russian proposal that would disarm the regime and put its chemcial weapons stockpiles under international control.
There have been three successful terror attacks against the U.S. on President Obama's watch. In addition to Benghazi, two al Qaeda-inspired men killed three and injured dozens of others earlier this year in an attack at the Boston Marathon. In 2009, Maj. Nidal Hassan, an avowed jihadist with ties to Anwar al-Awlaki, went on a shooting spree at Fort Hood, Texas, killing 13 and injuring 30.
Sept. 11 Day of Service
The Obamas have called for Sept. 11 -- now known as Patriot Day -- to be a national day of service and remembrance. Both the president and first lady will participate in acts of service in the Washington, D.C., area.
Mrs. Obama will visit with military children and their families at the USO Warrior and Family Center at Ft. Belvoir. The president will separately join a service project.
"Let us have the confidence in the values that make us Americans, which we must never lose, the shining liberties that make us a beacon to the world, the rich diversity that makes us stronger, the unity and commitment to one another that we sustain on this national day of service and remembrance," Obama said at the Pentagon.
'An Uncommon Profession'
At the Pentagon, more than a thousand Department of Defense employees attended Wednesday afternoon's Sept. 11 remembrance ceremony hosted by Defense Secretary Hagel and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey.
Hagel said Pentagon employees are aware of the legacy of courage and resilience exhibited on that day 12 years ago, which continue to be a source of strength and pride for all who serve at the Pentagon. His remarks seemed to touch on Syria without actually mentioning it. He said a critical living lesson learned from Sept. 11 is that the U.S. is not insulated from the events and threats that occur in the rest of the world. Hagel said these events "matter profoundly" and "if we don't act in the face of threats to our national interests and our future, there are consequences."
In another veiled reference to Syria he added, "we must be vigilant, we must always stay ahead of emerging challenges and threats, and we must take action, but wise action -- wise action -- when necessary to defend our interests and our country. "
"These are not easy times. These are complicated times. The world is growing more complex, interconnected, more combustible. But America and the world have within our grasp the potential to do more good for more people than the world has ever known," Hagel said. "And whether we fulfill that promise depends on many ways. It depends on us, and it depends on our dedication and the continued dedication of the men and women who are here today."
Dempsey's remarks focused on the resilience and resolve forged by America in the dozen years since the attacks. He praised the "quiet heroism" exhibited by the Pentagon workforce.
"It's the spirit and pride that permeates these hallways," Dempsey said. "You're devoted to an uncommon profession, a calling that is bigger than yourselves."
Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, many observers took photos of the lawmakers gathered together in remembrance, capturing a rare snapshot of a divided Congress locked in unity while the U.S. flag flew above them at half-staff.
"Twelve years ago our nation was shaken, our hearts were broken, and our country came together," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said. "All of us remember where we were when the twin towers fell, when the Pentagon was struck, when Flight 93 was brought down in Pennsylvania. All of us remember the horrific images of that clear morning: the destruction and devastation, the tragedy and fear, the unimaginable loss." "We look back today with our hearts still heavy and our heads still bowed," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., added. "We say again that you will never be forgotten."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid recounted the day of the attacks, from the time he rushed out of the U.S. Capitol when law enforcement believed the building was the next target to the moment Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., suggested lawmakers join together to sing "God Bless America" outside the U.S. Capitol.
"I will never forget 12 years ago," Reid promised before the ceremony concluded, once again, with the singing of "God Bless America."