A Gift From Flight 93
Sometimes when I’m looking for inspiration I’ll wander over to The Medal of Honor Website
, and immerse myself in stories of heroism past.
The Medal of Honor is the U.S. military’s highest award for valor. The acts of courage recorded in the Medal of Honor citations are both awe-inspiring and chilling. And far, far too many awards were posthumous.
The stories are also a little distant. It’s very hard to read those citations and say, “I could have done that”. How can you relate to the experience of Captain Ben Salomon
, a WWII doctor who single-handedly killed 98 enemy soldiers while sustaining 24 different wounds before he fell? Or Staff Sergeant Henry Erwin
, who picked up a burning phosphorous bomb with his bare hands carried it through an aircraft to the co-pilot’s window while his entire body was engulfed in flame?
The Medal of Honor is a military citation. As such, it applies to men and women who have been through rigorous training, and who are placed into difficult situations. It is hard for civilians to understand their sacrifice. Reading those citations is like reading stories of Roman Legions or the siege of Masada – great acts of heroism, oddly disconnected from reality by time and our inability to understand the thoughts and feelings of the participants.
It has been said that great acts of courage often arise out of desperation, fatigue, or even boredom. For that reason as well, it’s hard for us to understand the bravery of a person who has been awake for three days in a cold trench and suddenly finds within himself the ability to face certain death for his country.
Reading these stories, I used to wonder if my generation was capable of such acts. I’m not alone in my insecurity - people my age grew up with tales of heroism, and sacrifice, and hardship. Our parents went through a lot. They suffered through wars, a cold war, economic hardship, and they built the modern world while doing it.
But my generation and the ones following it have had no great hardship, no great tests of our character. That has led many to conclude that we have lost something – an inner strength borne of adversity. Many of us have wondered if our generation would have had the ability to do what our parents and grandparents did. Sure, we see lots of heroes today – firemen, police officers, the military. But we can’t relate to them. We don’t have their training, their commitment to a credo, their culture. Their heroism doesn’t say much about what we as regular citizens are capable of.
On the morning of September 11, 2001, thirty-three regular people waited to board their flight across the country. The scene is familiar to all who fly – the lines, the boredom, the shuffling walk through the boarding gate, the tight corridors of an airplane and the excuse-me's of people jostling and bumping while stowing carry-on luggage and squishing past each other into their seats.
We don’t know exactly what happened on Flight 93 that morning, but we can all put ourselves in the scene – the quiet hiss of air rushing past the cabin, the muted whine of the turbines...
The guy in the aisle seat is setting up a laptop on the seatback tray. A flash of annoyance whisks across your face as the person in front of you reclines and bumps your knees. The in-flight magazine is the same one you read on the outbound flight, so you dig into your briefcase for the Grisham novel you picked up at the airport coffee shop and settle back to relax.
Then something catches your attention. A scream from up front, perhaps. Yells from the cockpit. A sudden lurch as the pilot fights for control against a madman. In front of you, you can see heads popping up as people rise from their seats to get a better view of what’s going on. A murmur grows into loud conversation and then raised voices as people start asking each other what’s going on. Fear begins to grip you – fear of the unknown. In your years of flying on airplanes you’ve dealt with the regular bumps and thumps of landing gear and flaps deploying, turbulence, and bad weather. But nothing like this.
Finally, the word filters back to you: Hijacking! Strangely, you calm down. The unknown is now the known. You’ve seen plenty of these on TV, and you know how they always end. Demands, a landing, passengers released, or maybe a storming of the airplane by those superhuman counter-terrorist forces, who always seem to get their men without a single passenger being harmed.
Now your thoughts are changing. You’re annoyed that someone has disrupted your flight. You won’t be home for supper. There is still a black lump of fear in your gut, but it’s manageable. You’ll get through this. Just settle down, don’t do anything stupid, and relax. The authorities will save you. They always do.
Then you hear voices from passengers behind you. Something about the World Trade Center. Someone’s been talking on the air phone to a family member. Planes are crashing. Targets are being hit. The Pentagon is in flames.
The realization slowly dawns on you – your plane is a missile. There will be no heroic rescue by men dressed in black carrying submachine guns. There are no negotiators working their wily ways with the terrorists on the radio. There will be no landing, no interviews with the media. There will be no escape. The men up front intend to kill you, and they intend to kill a lot of people on the ground.
Thirty-three passengers and seven crewmembers went through that experience. They were not soldiers, they were not driven to desperate acts of heroism through hunger, or fatigue, or delirium. They were not firefighters who live and die by a code that ensures their willingness to walk into buildings while everyone else runs out. They were just people. On their way home from giving presentations, attending conferences, visiting relatives. They were a perfect cross-section of America. They were you and me.
As word filtered through that aircraft, and the passengers began to understand what was happening, an amazing thing happened. Rather than scream, and panic, and make demands, they organized. They gathered together, and talked through their options. In the face of almost certain death, they made calm plans to take control of their destiny, to end their lives in a time and place of their choosing. They vowed not to let their lives end in an act of destruction against others.
Then they stopped, and reached out to us. This being the 21st century, their outreach took the form of telephone calls to loved ones, to operators, to authorities. Tendrils of electromagnetic energy, reached out across the country, leaving an indelible mark on everyone they touched. In calm voices, they described their situation, gave intelligence to the people who could use it, and said goodbye to loved ones. In their calmness and obvious resolve, they sent a message to all of us. A message that said, “This is who we are. This is how free people live, and this is how they die.” And from that moment on, we all knew what we were capable of doing.
In the dark days that followed September 11, it would have been easy to cower in fear, to believe that our generation was not up to this fight. Had it not been for the heroes of Flight 93, we might have been reading articles today lamenting the past, telling us how the stuff of “The Greatest Generation” of WWII had been lost. We might have questioned our resolve, and even looked for an easy way out.
But the doomed and valiant passengers of Flight 93 reached out to us with a different message, and lifted a great weight off our shoulders. They told us that the Greatest Generation is every generation that is forced to stand up and be counted. Our time has come, and in the final heroic acts of those 40 people, the example has been set.