9/11 20th Commemoration: Everything You Need To Know

Aug 3, 2021

9/11 20th Commemoration: Everything You Need To Know

This resource provides communications focused recommendations for the 20th commemoration of 9/11. 

Some items in this resource are for groups with C4 capacity. Those items are indicated by (C4). ReThink will continue to update this resource as the landscape of post- 9/11 policies shifts.

How do I use this resource?

The Target Audience section includes c3 and c4 guidance.
The Talking Points section goes over a list of messages you can use verbatim in your interview.
The Strategic Recommendations section contains ideas you should keep top of mind while messaging on the issue.
The Fielding Common Questions section helps you rebut the opposition and respond to tough questions you may be asked in an interview.
The News Updates section condenses key new facts you need to know.
The Reporter Contact List is attached for you to download and use as you pitch reporters.
The Additional Resources section has further guidance from our partner organizations.

Are you headed to an interview and do not have time to read the entire document? Scroll straight to the Talking Points section.

Target Audience

We need to inform policymakers, journalists, and the American public about the negative social and political ramifications that continue 20 years after the attacks. This commemoration should serve as a point of reinvigoration for civil rights advocates, immigration and refugee experts, anti-war activists, and more. This is the time to call for real policy changes—whether you work on civil rights, immigration, surveillance, or endless war.

If you have C4 capacity, you can use this opportunity to call for any of the below legislation:

Rep. Ilhan Omar (MN-05) will be introducing legislation to counter international Islamophobia. Provisions include requiring the White House to create an Office of the Special Envoy To Monitor and Combat Islamophobia, which is similar to the office that already exists for anti-Semitism and which she and 23 other Democrats have already called for. A large coalition of organizations have similarly called on Secretary Blinken to establish the position without legislative intervention. 

The NO BAN Act, which repealed President Trump’s executive orders creating Muslim and African travel bans and prevents future presidents from enacting similar bans, was reintroduced this Congress. It passed in the House but has yet to pass in the Senate. President Trump cited 9/11 as justification for his original executive order in January 2017.

The Senate is set to vote this year on a bipartisan bill to repeal authorizations for the use of military force (AUMFs) enacted in 1991 for the Gulf War and 2002 for the Iraq War. The bill is sponsored by Sens. Tim Kaine (D-VA.) and Todd Young (R-IN). The House already repealed both authorizations, in addition to a never-used 1957 AUMF. President Biden is supportive of the bill, so if it reaches his desk, it would be the first time since the 9/11 attacks that Congress will have clawed back its constitutional war powers. Most Republicans are expected to oppose repealing the 2002 AUMF.

Talking Points

How you speak about 9/11 will depend on your target audience. Download our recent research on the 9/11 commemoration to enhance your persuasiveness by clicking here. A significant body of research indicates the following formula for messaging increases your persuasiveness: [shared value] + [villain + attack] + [solution + vision]


United We Stand: No matter where we live or what we look like, we all want to feel safe and protected in our communities. But after 9/11, certain politicians exploited public fear to profile and spy on thousands of innocent people based on their race, faith, or national origin…We need to reject these harmful policies and build a country that fulfills the promise of safety and freedom for all of us—no exceptions.

Alternative Patriotism: Loving your country means rolling up your sleeves and working with your neighbors to create a healthier and more just society. There is nothing more patriotic than publicly acknowledging our country’s mistakes and working to right those wrongs. Since 9/11, hate crimes against Muslims, or people perceived to be Muslim or Arab, have skyrocketed. Now, a new generation of American patriots are calling for a public reckoning to help our country heal.

Spending Abroad: The safety and security of our nation must be a top priority. But since 9/11, certain politicians have exploited public fear and spent big on inflated defense budgets and costly military operations overseas. We’ve all paid the price: cuts to education, health care, and infrastructure in order to foot the bill for these wars with no end in sight…It’s time to take a hard look at our spending priorities in order to tackle issues at home.

Intersectionality: All of us—whether white, Black, or brown—deserve to feel safe in our communities. But since the attacks of 9/11, a powerful few have exploited public fear and used a familiar playbook to profile, detain, and discriminate against Muslims, people of Middle Eastern and South Asian descent, and Sikhs. The same institutions have spied on Black organizers and separated migrant families. We should rewrite these policies and make sure that those sworn to protect us treat everyone with respect and fairness—no exceptions.

Strategic Recommendations

In the end, you make choices about what narratives advance your organization’s goals. The below combines insights from the psychology of persuasion with ReThink Media’s latest messaging research results with the intent of helping you mobilize your constituents and expand your base.  

Avoid placing people at the time of attacks. Phrases like “remember where you were when you first heard the news of the attacks” or “I remember that day clearly” distract the audience from the point you’re making and shift their attention to a highly charged, emotional moment. The human brain is associative and connects to its own experience. Messaging is first understood emotionally, then with the rational part of the brain. For many people you speak to, their memories of 9/11 are solidly linked to fear and anger. By asking them to recall where they were at the time, you are priming them to oppose whatever you say next. Acknowledge the attacks from a high level perspective and transition to your talking points.

Use “Black and brown” instead of “Muslim” or “Arab”. Messages using “Black and brown” test better than messagings that include the words “Muslim” and “Arab.” This could be because “Black or brown” encompasses a broader population that more Americans are familiar with. Using phrases your audience is already familiar with primes them to be more receptive to your message. Mention specific communities like Muslims, Arabs, South Asians, or Sikhs after you’ve established familiarity.

Avoid eliciting emotions outside of policies and talking points. 9/11 is no doubt an emotional event for Americans. Leaning into the emotions may feel therapeutic or apologetic, but it can sidetrack from getting your message across. Keep your talking points focused by centering tangible policy asks and statistics that you want audiences to take away from your message. There is evidence that pointing out double standards in a calm and reasonable way is persuasive. 

Avoid the “T” word. There is so much disagreement on what terrorism encompasses that it can detract from your message. Instead, name the exact harm you are talking about: “white supremacy,” “surveillance,'' “detainment,” etc. Acts of mass violence is a possible substitute as its associations in many audiences are not the same as terrorism. “Islamist” is a bad option as the term is used to smear domestic U.S. Muslim civil society organizations.  

Answer what you know. If it's your area of expertise, talk about it. If not, avoid talking about it. It’s far better to move onto another question than to venture a guess on live television or write about a topic that you do not know very well. Stick to your own area and talking points. Remember, in an interview you do not have to answer the question that was asked. An interview is your opportunity to get your message out, not a regular conversation. A common phrase used to bridge away from a reporter’s question and home to your message is, “Honestly, to get to the heart of the matter, you need to…[insert talking point here].” For more TV interview best practices, check out our resource on Tips for Television Interviews.

Call it the “endless wars.” The term “endless wars” captures the Iraq, Afghanistan, and other ongoing physical wars, as well as the never-ending harm inflicted upon innocent Black and brown people. It reinforces the fact that the wars abroad and at home have no clear target, and only harm Black and Brown communities. 

A 20 year commemoration offers an opportunity for a sober conversation about the good and bad in our national response, and what we can do today to implement those lessons learned. We suggest uplifting the below aspects of that conversation:

  1. Is the domestic security infrastructure that was shaped by the 9/11 attacks serving to protect the ideals of individual freedom, rights, and safety? What is working and what is not? How do we course correct?

    1. Is this infrastructure adequately pivoting to current threats such as white supremacists or pandemics?

    2. The infrastructure includes significant militarization of U.S. police forces. Is this increasing public safety or not?

    3. How do we increase public safety?

  2. Do our wars make us safer? Is the national security infrastructure that was shaped by the 9/11 attacks protecting us, our democracy, and our safety? Is it working or not? 

    1. Is being militarily involved in 85 countries making us safer? What are the downsides? How are we accounting for the harm we do? 

    2. What have we learned from prioritizing militaristic force over diplomacy?

  3. An entire generation born after the 9/11 attacks is coming of age. What is the perspective of those who have lived a life as part of communities targeted by post-9/11 law enforcement overreach? What is the perspective of those who are deploying to conflict zones that have existed since the attacks? What better alternatives do they offer?

  4. After the 9/11 attacks, many AMEMSA organizations changed what activism looks like. What are their stories, what have they learned, and what is their vision for the future? 

    1. This should focus on uplifting impacted people’s stories, including protecting the Bill of Rights, which is often AMEMSA-led groups.

  5. Our nation cannot ethically move on without accountability. To move forward, we cannot just change course, but we need to account for the harm done for the past 20 years, where we can. That means condolence payments to civilians harmed, closing Guantanamo, repealing the 2001 AUMF, providing veterans and impacted communities the care they need, and putting rules in place to make sure that if something like 9/11 happens again, we don’t repeat the same mistakes. How are we accounting for those costs? What are we doing to make amends? To hold people accountable? How do we move forward without justice? 

Fielding Common Questions

“We can't be having conversations about politics on the anniversary of a national tragedy.”

It’s more of a tragedy if we do not reflect on and learn from our response. Since 9/11, certain politicians have exploited public fear and spent big on inflated defense budgets and costly military operations overseas. We’ve all paid the price: cuts to education, health care, and infrastructure in order to foot the bill for these wars with no end in sight. It’s time to take a hard look at our spending priorities in order to tackle issues at home.

After 9/11, we made sure our country was safer by using tech like surveillance – evaluating travelers. Don’t you think that’s been effective? We have nothing to hide, so why is it a problem to have access to that information?

All of us—whether white, Black, or brown—want and deserve to feel safe in our communities. But since the attacks of 9/11, a powerful few have exploited public fear and used a familiar playbook to profile, detain, and discriminate against Muslims, people of Middle Eastern and South Asian descent, and Sikhs. The same institutions have spied on Black organizers and separated migrant families. We have harmed our country, and we have weakened our Constitution with this racial profiling, over the last two decades. We need to rewrite these policies to ensure that everyone is safe. And that it’s not just an illusion of safety that we’ve created, without addressing the real underlying problems in our society. Privacy is a thing we all value. You may have nothing to hide, but you still have curtains on your bathroom windows. Nobody wants the government snooping on their morning routine. If you have evidence, get a warrant.

Terror attacks have gone down in the last few years. Why are you arguing these programs don’t make us safer?

All of us—whether white, Black, or brown—want and deserve to feel safe in our communities. But since 9/11, white supremacist attacks on Americans have actually increased and our government and law enforcement continue to target those who are Black, brown, or practice a certain faith. Our children are not safe in their schools. People are worried about whether or not they will be coming home to their families after they visit their mosque, synagogue, or gurdwara. And we kicked off this year with the January 6 extremist attack on our Capitol. We need to rethink and rewrite the policies that target innocent people, and leave so many Americans vulnerable to other forms of mass violence.

Don’t we need more tools to fight this new kind of terrorism we’re seeing? We saw the threat posed by white nationalists and the far-right on January 6.

All of us, no matter where we come from, want to feel safe. And it’s hard to feel that way given the news we’re seeing about the rise of far-right extremism. But the truth is, the federal government has spent years, and millions of dollars, on tools and programs for surveillance. And from their very inception, these tools have targeted innocent Black and brown people, because that’s what they were designed to do. Instead of allocating more money to these programs, we need to ask why the government has been unable to use the resources already at its disposal to go after those responsible for these far-right attacks. The government asked for and got most every tool it wanted after 9/11, now they say they need more power? What gives? We have members of Congress trying to block the January 6 commission. Adding more tools in the government’s arsenal doesn’t fix that. We need to think bigger picture here, and address the underlying reasons we’re seeing a rise in white supremacy and far-right extremism.

We’ve seen some planned events that diminish the memories of those who died in the attacks on 9/11. Isn’t this in poor taste?

Every person chooses to grieve in their own way. The impact of 9/11 did not stop on the day of the tragedy. It’s rippled through families who lost loved ones, in our education systems, and in the policies and wars that came out of that awful day in our history. If we are not going to have a frank conversation about what happened 20 years later, when will we? The only way to honor the victims of that day is by also honoring all of the victims since then.

What are your thoughts on the unrest currently unfolding in Afghanistan?

Afghans, like Americans, want to live in peace and security. Unfortunately, leaders in both countries failed the Afghan people, leading to the life threatening chaos we are witnessing today. What we need to know is help innocent Afghans achieve safety, whether that is through resettlement in the U.S. or humanitarian aid abroad, and allow for our Americans to come home to their families.

News Updates

Sept 4: President Joe Biden will commemorate the 20th anniversary of 9/11 by traveling to the three sites of the attacks, the White House announced. Biden will travel to New York City, the Pentagon, and the Flight 93 National Memorial near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, to pay his respects to the nearly 3,000 people killed that day. 

August 30: The last U.S. military planes left Afghanistan, marking an end to the United States’ longest war. The departure marked the end of a bloody and chaotic withdrawal process, leaving many Americans and Afghans with visas to the United States still stuck in the country.

July 27: President Joe Biden is expected to attend the 9/11 memorial in New York City to mark the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks, four sources with knowledge of his plans told POLITICO. The White House recently indicated to officials in New York that Biden plans to travel for the commemoration, two of the sources said. Officials are also looking at possible stops at other locations attacked that day: the Pentagon and the Flight 93 National Memorial in Shanksville, Pa. But one administration official said it may be logistically difficult to attend all three spots in one day.

July 20: Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) is leading a group of Democratic lawmakers in calling on Secretary of State Antony Blinken to create a special envoy to combat Islamophobia, as instances of anti-Muslim hate crimes continue to rise worldwide. Omar is sending a letter to Blinken to make the case for why the United States needs to play a heightened role in monitoring Islamophobic incidents around the world. The group also calls on Blinken to include state sponsored Islamophobic violence in next year's annual human rights reports. The group is looking for Blinken to establish a special envoy that mirrors what the Department of State created to investigate and fight anti-Semitism.

July 19: The Biden administration transferred its first detainee from Guantanamo Bay, reducing the prison population to 39. The Biden White House, while supporting the goal of closing the prison, has adopted a low-key approach in that effort  

July 13: Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) reintroduced the “Never Forget the Heroes Act” in 2019 to make sure the 9/11 Victims Compensation Fund stays funded for years to come and everyone impacted will be able to “get the health care they so rightly deserved.” The deadline to apply for the Victim Compensation Fund is on July 29, according to Rep. Maloney.

July 12: The 9/11 Memorial & Museum in Lower Manhattan dropped plans for special exhibitions commemorating the 20th anniversary. The reduction came after a severe budget crisis forced the nonprofit museum to make cuts. Former museum executives and some victims’ families have accused curators of telling a reductive story about the events of Sept. 11, avoiding difficult conversations about the relationship between Sept. 11, the spike in Islamophobia, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

July 10: Less than two months before the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, the chief prosecutor of the alleged 9/11 conspirators announced his surprise retirement, making a trial in the case appear increasingly unlikely.

Reporter Contact List

Race & Ethnicity
Foreign Policy & National Security
Domestic Terrorism
Opinion Editors

Additional Resources

We Don’t Need More Terrorism Laws After the Capitol Riot. Just Look At Our 9/11 Mistakes (Brennan Center for Justice)

9/11, South Asian Americans & Islamophobia (PBS)

Impact of post 9/11 policies on the civil rights of American Muslims (Poligon Education Fund)