The twenty-first century’s war against terrorism began in the airspace over Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001, when combat erupted on United Flight 93. The Boeing 757, on a regularly scheduled flight from Newark to San Francisco, had been seized that morning by four Al Qaeda terrorists. Todd Beamer and other passengers, informed of the attacks on the World Trade Center, voted to storm the cockpit. The plane crashed into the countryside near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, rather than somewhere in the nation’s capital. Today it is a National Memorial preserved by the National Park Service.
On this eve of the 16th anniversary of the 9/11 tragedy, amidst the deep divisions of our time, it is more important than ever to recall not only that fateful day in our nation’s history but also, the exemplary heroism of Flight 93’s Citizen Warriors, and the boundless, unconditional altruism they displayed. These men and women had simply boarded a Boeing 757 to fly from Newark to San Francisco that morning. The passengers and crew were a diverse cross section of human beings, running the gamut from U.S., Japanese and German nationals to African Americans and individuals from the LGBT community. Among them were Toshiya Kuge was a 20 year old student from Waseda University in Japan; Christian Adams, a 37 year old German in the wine trade; Todd Beamer, a 32 year old father of two who worked for Oracle. Mark Bingham was a PR executive with 30-plus years of career behind him; he had played rugby for UC Berkeley and was gay. Hilda Marcin, the oldest person on the flight, was a 79 year old retired bookkeeper from New Jersey. She was flying to California to move in with her daughter. First Officer Leroy Homer and flight attendant Cee-Cee Ross Lyles were black. Deora Frances Bodley, a student at Santa Clara, was the youngest person on that plane.
None of the passengers or crew had thought of becoming heroes that morning when they boarded in Newark, New Jersey. Yet when confronted by the reality of violent evil in their midst they rose superbly to the challenge. In a quintessentially American way, they voted on what course of action to take. Conversations on Airphones had informed them about the fates of the Twin Towers in Manhattan and the attack on the Pentagon earlier that morning. Upon learning, about an hour into the flight, that four Al Qaeda hijackers had seized control of the plane, they decided to attempt to storm the cockpit and regain control. They struggled with the hijackers, who were armed with knives and had already killed a few crew members and passengers.
At the onset of the Revolutionary War, Captain Parker of the Massachusetts militia said at Lexington Green: “If they mean to have a war, let it begin here.” In the same spirit, conscripts and volunteers answered the call of duty in the US Civil War and in both World Wars, and the men and women of Flight 93 answered the call to serve their fellow man.
At about 10:03 EST Flight 93 slammed into the ground of an abandoned strip mine in western Pennsylvania near Shanksville. All those on board — 7 crew members, 33 passengers and 4 hijackers — were instantly killed.
As a direct result of their actions the US Capitol building or, perhaps the White House, were spared from destruction. These targets in Washington DC were only about 20 minutes away from the crash site. Countless lives were saved by the heroic actions of the Citizen Soldiers of Flight 93.
Today a visitor to the Flight 93 Memorial in Pennsylvania, which is just a few miles from the Pennsylvania Turnpike, will find a kind of hallowed battlefield reminiscent of Gettysburg and other sacred spots. In the airspace above Pennsylvania Americans of all kinds united to fight a common foe. They lived out “E Pluribus Unum.” They were determined to not become passive victims of an evil plot against our country. They refused to go quietly to their rest.
Todd Beamer’s battle cry of “Let’s Roll” has become an inspiring rallying cry for the American military and intelligence services engaged in various combats around the world. Our reluctant warriors, our citizen soldiers are, sixteen years later, still engaged in a war on terror in Afghanistan, in Iraq and in Syria.
Must we face such large-scale adversity in order to come together as a nation? In recalling 9/11 and the random acts of altruism and heroism it inspired, let’s remember, too — and honor — the humanity that bind us as a nation.
Christopher Kelly, an American history writer based in Seattle and London, is co-author with English historian Stuart Laycock of America Invaded: A State by State Guide to Fighting on American Soil (August 2017). Other titles by Kelly and Laycock include America Invades: How America has invaded or been Militarily Involved with nearly every Country on Earth and Italy Invades: How Italians Have Conquered the World. Kelly has also edited An Adventure in 1914: The True Story of an American Family’s Journey on the Brink of World War I. His articles and op-eds have appeared in publications including USA Today, Investor’s Business Daily, the New York Daily News and the San Francisco Chronicle, and he has conducted more than 200 radio interviews.