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A Shanksville meditation

The American tradition of free cooperative action for the common good was alive on United 93 between 9:30 and 10 a.m. on 9/11.

The Flight 93 National Memorial visitor center from the plaza below, located about two miles north of Shanksville, PA. (Image: Wikipedia)

The most moving feature of the Flight 93 National Memorial in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, are the pictures of the 40 brave men and women who lost their lives on September 11, 2001, while preventing al-Qaeda terrorists from destroying the U.S. Capitol. At this moment of intense divisiveness and polarization in America, it’s important to reflect on those images and learn from them, however peripheral they may be to the memorial’s design.

At 8:42 a.m. on 9/11, United 93, a Boeing 757, took off on a flight from Newark to San Francisco. The north tower of the World Trade Center was struck by a hijacked airliner four minutes later. At 9:03 a.m., the south tower was hit. Some 25 minutes after that, terrorists seized control of United 93. And a few minutes later, the Pentagon was struck by another hijacked plane. The next 20 minutes wrote an epic story of courage and resolve into the annals of American history.

Thanks to cell phones and on-board airphones, Flight 93’s passengers, who were herded to the back of the plane after the hijackers seized the cockpit, learned what had happened to the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. Thirty-seven phone calls, plus the fact that the plane had reversed its course and was heading east toward Washington, convinced the passengers that the hijacking of United 93 was part of a coordinated terrorist plot to cripple the United States. After discussing their situation and responsibilities, the passengers voted to try and retake the plane, tackling the hijacker who remained in the passenger cabin (and claimed to have a bomb), and then forcing their way into the cockpit to regain control of a 65-ton jetliner careening through the sky.

Passenger Todd Beamer, a leader of the revolt, recited the Lord’s Prayer and Psalm 23 with airphone operator Lisa Jefferson on the ground, asking her to call his family and tell them how much he loved them “if I don’t make it.” Jefferson then heard Beamer say to the others, “Are you guys ready? Okay. Let’s roll!”

Passengers charged the cockpit, battering their way past the hijacker with the alleged bomb. After a few minutes of struggle, the plane rolled onto its back and Flight 93 smashed into the Pennsylvania countryside at 563 m.p.h., blasting out a crater eight to 10 feet deep and 30 to 50 feet wide, and igniting a fireball that rose into the sky as a gigantic mushroom cloud. Everyone aboard was killed instantly by blunt-force trauma; the Capitol, where Congress was in session, was saved.

It took the passengers of Flight 93 less than 20 minutes to decide that they would rather risk death as free men and women than submit to certain destruction as submissive captives of evil men intent on mass murder. Whatever their differences of race, sex, or political opinion, there was a unity in their determination to prevent a fourth national catastrophe on September 11, 2001.

In the fateful and intense minutes leading up to their vote to resist, I think it very unlikely that there was discussion of America as ill-founded, systemically racist, homophobic, or misogynist. The American tradition of free cooperative action for the common good, which so impressed Alexis de Tocqueville when he wrote Democracy in America 160 years earlier, was alive on United 93 between 9:30 and 10 a.m. on 9/11.

None of this, alas, is conveyed by the design of the Flight 93 National Memorial. Its Wall of Names commemorating the passengers and crew is a poor imitation of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the National Mall. The ugly, concrete “Tower of Voices” with its 40 wind-driven chimes has no obvious connection to the passengers and crew it claims to commemorate. The Visitor Center looks like I.M. Pei’s East Building of the National Gallery of Art, sawn in half horizontally. The design does not intimate, symbolically, the transcendent truths and virtues embodied by the resistant passengers and crew of Flight 93: the classic idea of what a memorial should do.

With, perhaps, one exception. The white marble slab on which is carved the name of passenger Lauren Catuzzi Grandcolas includes, in smaller letters, “and unborn child.” That brief inscription has a unique power of suggestion in a memorial that otherwise fails to speak eloquently of the dignity of life, which was affirmed by the men and women of Flight 93 who chose not to flinch in the face of wickedness, thus giving choice its true nobility.


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About George Weigel 365 Articles
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. He is the author of over twenty books, including Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (1999), The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (2010), and The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform. His most recent books are The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission (2020), and Not Forgotten: Elegies for, and Reminiscences of, a Diverse Cast of Characters, Most of Them Admirable (Ignatius, 2021).

6 Comments

  1. Thank You Mr Weigel. The punks,cowards,and paid for mobs of Antifa/BLM have no clue on
    what Courage and Love Mr Beamer and his 39 other stalwarts did on a bright sunny day over a field in Pennsylvania.Not unlike another bright sunny day in July of 1863.When America’s life hung in the balance.

    • Mr Weigel surmises ” I think it very unlikely that there was discussion of America as ill-founded, systemically racist, homophobic, or misogynist. The American tradition of free cooperative action for the common good, which so impressed Alexis de Tocqueville when he wrote Democracy in America 160 years earlier, was alive on United 93 between 9:30 and 10 a.m. on 9/11.”

      ……and G Raff sees fit to contradict this sentiment with his comment ” The punks, cowards, and paid for mobs of Antifa/BLM have no clue on what Courage and Love Mr Beamer and his 39 other stalwarts did on a bright sunny day over a field in Pennsylvania.”
      Is this statement of G Raff’s an indication of a prevailing sentiment among a sizeable population of US Catholics?

  2. At first glance the memorial struck me as cold and vacant of meaning just as described by George Weigel. I googled Todd Beamer his and family photos his lovely wife Lisa three children. His appearance is the model of the red blooded American. “Let’s roll” stayed in my memory Weigel’s account fills the missing details two significant. Heroism not lacking among our volunteer military is otherwise lacking among most of us. The recent woman raped on a train onlookers content with taking pics. Presbyters bishops reticent unwilling to address the travesty of abortion from the pulpit, the growing homosexual disorder. The other relates to the dignity of life, its precious value in the woman passenger whose unborn infant was recognized on the inscripted marble. That one detail salvaged the memorial.

  3. Nice article remembering the Flight 93 heroes. Who knows how many lives they saved by their actions. Just like the fallen hereos from American Independence to Today, America rest on the sacrifices made by so many known and unknown heroes. Unfortunately, their rememberance is mostly only gravestones. It is up to solid historians to bring their lives and heroic actions known. One example is a book titled “The Indispensables” by Patrick O’Donnell. The heroes of Flight 93 are part of the Indispensables that continue the tradition of doing what needs to be done and with God’s guidance made and continue to make America the light of the world.

  4. The is a beautiful tribute to the men who so valiantly gave their lives so our country would not suffer the most horrific symbolic and actual act of all – destruction of the White House and its occupants. I have not been to Shanksville, and it is disheartening to read the memorial to Flight 93 and its amazing passengers is so unworthy of the sacrifice they made and their place in history. But I am happy, as are you, that the life of an unborn angel is memorialized there – thus emphasizing the value of every human being, no matter how tiny.

  5. Thank you for a beautiful essay, Mr Weigel. It speaks to the heart.
    We live in strange times that forsake the sacredness of life. Women have been duped into forgetting their holy gift of bringing new life into the world. That there is mention at this memorial of an unborn child shocks me and gives me hope.

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