The Problem with Countrymen

Back in October of 2019, Happy Wife and I along with two other couples bicycled from Pittsburgh to Washington D.C. Part 1 was chronicled here. Somewhere near the halfway point of the ride, in southern Pennsylvania, the six of us hopped on a shuttle to go visit the Flight 93 memorial.

United Airlines Flight 93 was one of four planes hijacked by terrorists on 9/11. The flight manifest revealed a light passenger load, a feature of that particular flight which, among others, the terrorists preferred during their planning of the suicide missions – fewer passengers would mean less resistance, a lower chance of failure.

A lower chance, maybe, but fortunately not zero.

About forty minutes into Flight 93, now aware it had been hijacked by terrorists, some of the passengers stormed the cockpit door in order to break through and foil the terrorist’s plan. How? Exact details of what happened during the ensuing minutes are sketchy (the transcript from the recovered cockpit voice recorder was unclear at best), though pretty clearly wresting control of the plane from the terrorists had to be the first step. Once the terrorists in the cockpit were convinced the passengers would eventually breach the door (or maybe after they had), the pilot (Ziad Jarrah) initiated a rapid descent to crash the plane, knowing there was not enough time left to reach the intended suicide target.

Pause here a while to reflect on that.

Excluding the terrorists, there were 40 people aboard Flight 93, passengers and crew, 37 were Americans. All of them thought they were flying to San Fransisco that morning. At the memorial there is a multi-wall display showing a large photograph of each passenger and crew member, accompanied by a written narrative devoted to the details of their lives. I recall the six of us lingered there a long time, solemnly transfixed on the photos. Personally, I couldn’t get over just how ordinary many of these people were. And then to try and comprehend that such ordinary people could be suddenly thrust into unimaginable circumstances, all of them of one spirit and knowing they were likely going to die soon, to be able to concoct a plan for the most physically able among them to storm the cockpit to thwart the terrorist’s goal – to crash into the White house – I just couldn’t get my head around it. From where in the soul does that kind of courage come?

Twenty years later, instead of acting to protect it at all costs, even death, different Americans, craven ones, would storm and breach the White house. Simply to defile it, and to do who knows what other harm to their fellow countrymen inside. And then to return to your cozy little suburban home and smugly show “pride” in having taken part in it, as some self-described patriot? Disgusting.

To try and reconcile these two classes of Americans into any coherent concept of my fellow countrymen, for me is frankly impossible.

A photo I took outside the entry to the memorial

And another looking back at the memorial, near the debris field where Flight 93 crashed. The orientation of the walls was designed to align with the most likely path of the plane as it came over that hill. NTSB estimated its speed at 536 mph at the time of impact, 10:03 am. It left a crater over ten feet deep, fifty feet wide. The collision registered on area seismographs.