Saturday, September 10, 2011

Of Myths, Heroism and Flight 93

I realize that this is a weekend of somber reflection, of remembering the thousands of lives that were lost in the terrorist attacks of September 11.

And I realize that it is true, as President Clinton said during his remarks at the dedication of the Flight 93 Memorial in Pennsylvania, that there has always been a special place in the American heart and memory for heroes who sacrificed themselves for others.

But one of the things my mother taught me was that there is true value in genuinely inspiring words and deeds, and I don't think what happened with Flight 93 was exactly what we have been told.

I agree that the story of that flight is very moving. It is tragic, as are the accounts of the other three hijacked flights, but it differs from the other three primarily in one way — the passengers on Flight 93 had the benefit of the knowledge that everyone on the ground had, that other flights had been turned into missiles that had struck the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Those other three plane crashes happened so rapidly that relatively few passengers on those flights probably knew what was happening. It was that element of simultaneous surprise that the terrorists apparently were counting on — to strike before anyone realized what was happening.

But there was a delay in the departure of Flight 93, and it disrupted their timing. It wasn't terribly long as these things go (I've been through worse even though I have never been a frequent flier), but it was long enough that, after the flight finally was airborne, the pilot and co–pilot nearly got a general warning from the ground about hijackings, and it was long enough for the passengers to learn what had happened in New York and Washington.

That gave them some time to consider their situation — and their response.

Consequently, many people have accepted the myth that has emerged that the passengers revolted as some sort of selfless sense of patriotism and sacrifice swelled within them.

I don't doubt that they were patriotic, but neither am I convinced that their motives were as altruistic as we have been told for the last 10 years, either.

If they put two and two together — as most of them apparently did — they must have realized that their plane was not going to land safely. They must have realized they were part of a suicide mission. They must have known that it was almost certain that they would die — unless some sort of miracle happened and they were able to take control of the plane and one of the passengers could, either alone or with assistance from the ground, manage to land it.

I'm reminded of a scene from the movie "Lenny" about comedian Lenny Bruce. In the movie, Dustin Hoffman re–created segments from Bruce's shows, including one about the famous Zapruder film, the graphic account of the JFK assassination.

After the fatal shot, Jackie Kennedy could be seen climbing from her seat onto the trunk of the car and a Secret Service agent coming forward to help her back into her seat. A sequence of photos from the film were published nationally (in TIME, I think) with a caption that said something about how the first lady gave no thought to her personal safety and tried to shield the president from further gunshots.

Bruce/Hoffman said it was a "dirty lie."

"I think that, when she saw the president get it and the governor get it, she decided to get the hell out of there," he said. I agree. I think it was a split–second decision, reaction without reflection. Human instinct.

If she had had more time to think about it, she might have said yes, she would try to protect her husband if she saw he had been hurt.

But others assigned more meaning to it than that.

That's the feeling I get when I hear people speak of the passengers' revolt on Flight 93. They speak of them as if they sat in the back of that hijacked plane and had an in–depth discussion of American history and the principles of freedom and democracy — and then voted to stand up to terrorism.

I'm not saying that the passengers of Flight 93 reacted without any reflection. And the fact that they forced that plane to go down in a Pennsylvania field instead of Washington probably did save hundreds, if not thousands, of lives.

But I don't think that possibility crossed their minds. I think they were thinking only of their own survival. And that isn't a bad thing. It's a normal human instinct — self–preservation.

I've read the transcripts and heard the recordings that have been released to the public. I recall one of the passengers telling the others, "In the cockpit ... if we don't, we'll die!"

I have heard nothing about passengers shouting "Give me liberty or give me death!" or any other patriotic slogans from American history.

Their fates were sealed when that plane left the ground, but they mentally resisted that knowledge. They weren't thinking beyond the moment and doing whatever they could to live to the next moment ... and the next and the next.

There was, I should add, a certain poignance in Vice President Joe Biden's words about rising to the occasion and overcoming adversity. As a young senator–elect, Biden's life was forever altered by the loss of his first wife and their small daughter in a car accident, and for a time he considered leaving politics, but he did not.

Nor did he withdraw from life. He raised his sons the best he could and re–married a few years later. And his nearly four decades of public service stand as testimony to his survival.

Perhaps that will be the future inspiration of September 11 — the way the friends and relatives of the victims rose from the ashes and survived and persevered.

Things were over fairly quickly for the passengers of the planes. Sometimes just surviving is the hardest part.

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