On United 93’s heroes and the empty skies that followed the 9/11 terror attacks

I grew up in a suburb just outside Chicago and O’Hare International Airport. There wasn’t a day that went by that I didn’t hear the roar of planes flying directly over my house or somewhere just off into the distance — until Sept. 11, 2001. Like most Americans, there was a tangled mess of thoughts swirling through my head after seeing American 11, United 175, and American 77 crash into the World Trade Center Towers and the Pentagon, respectively. As commercial flights were grounded in in the wake of the attacks, I remember noticing the silence and then feeling shame for thinking it contained an eerie beauty. To this day the shame still lingers, which is why I feel it is important to share the history of United 93 and the 33 passengers who stood up to their executioners.

The following is a brief excerpt from the 9/11 Commission Report:

At 9:57, a passenger assault began. Several passengers had terminated phone calls with loved ones in order to join the revolt. One of the callers ended her message as follows: “Everyone’s running up to first class. I’ve got to go. Bye.”

The cockpit voice recorder captured the sounds of the passenger assault muffled by the intervening cockpit door. Some family members who listened to the recording report that they can hear the voice of a loved one among the din. We cannot identify whose voices can be heard. But the assault was sustained.

In response, Jarrah immediately began to roll the airplane to the left and right, attempting to knock the passengers off balance. At 9:58:57, Jarrah told another hijacker in the cockpit to block the door. Jarrah continued to roll the airplane sharply left and right, but the assault continued. At 9:59:52, Jarrah changed tactics and pitched the nose of the airplane up and down to disrupt the assault. The recorder captured the sounds of loud thumps, crashes, shouts, and breaking glasses and plates. At 10:00:03, Jarrah stabilized the airplane.

Five seconds later, Jarrah asked, “Is that it? Shall we finish it off?” A hijacker responded, “No. Not yet. When they all come, we finish it off.” The sounds of fighting continued outside the cockpit. Again, Jarrah pitched the nose of the aircraft up and down. AT 10:00:26, a passenger in the background said, “In the cockpit. If we don’t we’ll die!” Sixteen seconds later, a passenger yelled, “Roll it!” Jarrah responded with violent maneuvers at about 10:01:00 and said, “Allah is the greatest! Allah is the greatest!” He then asked another hijacker in the cockpit, “Is that it? I mean, shall we put it down?” to which the other replied, “Yes, put it in it, and pull it down.”

The passengers continued their assault and on 10:02:23, a hijacker said, “Pull it down! Pull it down!” The hijackers remained at the controls but must have judged that the passengers were only seconds from overcoming them. The airplane headed down; the control wheel was turned hard to the right. The airplane rolled onto its back, and one of the hijackers began shouting, “Allah is the greatest. Allah is the greatest.” With the sounds of the passenger counterattack continuing, the aircraft plowed into an empty field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, at 580 miles per hour, about 20 minutes flying time from Washington, D.C.

Jarrah’s objective was to crash his airliner into symbols of the American Republic, the Capitol or the White House. He was defeated by the alerted, unarmed passengers of United 93.” — (The 9/11 Commission Report. 7- 8.)

It is almost impossible to fathom what it must be like to fight for ones life on a hijacked plane — let alone an aircraft where the hijackers perform barrel rolls and roller coaster maneuvering to obtain their objective. How many lives were saved because of the actions of those 33 passengers on Flight 93? There is no way to calculate an exact number, but the final intended destination — Washington, D.C. — gives us a clue.

Americans said “Never forget” after the 9/11 terror attacks, but it sadly feels like many of them want to forget. While it is indeed dangerous to allow painful memories to (ironically) hijack our collective psyche, the same can be said for losing important lessons from history.

Beauty can be found in incredibly horrific experiences, and the bravery and heroism displayed by the passengers of Flight 93 is a sterling example. If you have a moment to yourself today, say a prayer for the lost souls of September 11, 2001, and the loved ones they left behind.

Remembering 9/11 and the ‘what if?’ that never ends

On September 11th, 2001 I was just over a year out of the military, taking college classes and preparing myself to transfer to the University of Southern California. My grandmother spoke to me from our living room and said a plane had hit the World Trade Center. I talked about it with her from the kitchen for a few moments, and just as I walked into the family room I saw United Flight 175 hit the South Tower. A chill ran down my spine. The phone rang seconds later. It was my sister: “A plane just flew by my window. What’s going on?” she asked. Sadly, I don’t even remember my response, and I’ve never thought to ask her. I know that she was evacuated from her building, and that a kind stranger offered her a tee shirt to breath into to avoid inhaling dust and debris. I also know that on a deeper, more philosophical level I’ve been trying to answer her question — as it pertains to Islamic terrorism — ever since.

We can count dead bodies. We can put a dollar amount on the damage to the city of New York and the country as a whole. We can calculate the economic impact al Qaeda had on the United States and the world, but what we can’t do is quantify the psychological toll the terrorist attacks of 9/11 wreaked on the nation. Regardless, I am more than happy to offer myself up for amateur and professional sociologists everywhere.

Prior to 9/11, I was not much of a crier. As a former infantryman, I prided myself on having a bit of a “tough” exterior. I was a master at hiding my emotions and keeping my “military manner” when necessary. On that day though, I remember driving to class with tears in my eyes. I had to compose myself in the parking lot before entering the building, and while my body was in a college classroom my mind was somewhere else. Psychological aftershocks were reverberating in my head, and it wouldn’t be until years later that I would be able to look back and identify many of the changes to the landscape.

For instance, post 9/11 I found myself tearing up just listening to Tony Blair defend Western Civilization. I’d see pictures of George W. Bush meeting with injured soldiers and I’d get a lump in my throat. Sometimes, random stories about 9/11 would come on television and I’d struggle to keep my composure. I tried to tell a friend about former Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell and I couldn’t finish because my voice kept cracking. I’ll now see the random veteran in public, and I although I want so badly to thank them for their service I rarely can do so because the tears begin before I ever utter a word. I can’t control it and I understand how it comes across as inane. However, I tend to think of my physiological response to these situations as something born out of the realization that the freedoms we enjoy are much more fragile than most people realize. When I think about the idea of America I have reactions that late night comedians find humorous — and I don’t care.

A friend of mine recently asked what my life would have been like if I entered the military after attending USC. It’s a good question, and it’s a slightly different version of the same question I ask myself almost every day: “What if I stayed in?”

When I exited the service in August, 2000 I was generally of the mindset that I had fulfilled some sort of unspoken, patriotic duty. In my mind, war could have broken out at any time, but it didn’t during my enlistment. I was under the impression that any war that involved the United States would take place years after I was in any position to help out. After returning to civilian life, working so hard to get into a prestigious university, taking out college loans and charting out a new path for myself, 9/11 suddenly had me second guessing everything. My friends were being sent to Afghanistan, and then Iraq. While I was in Southern California reading and writing my friends were being shot at. In California I was dating the woman who would ultimately become my wife, and yet there was always a part of me that screamed “You should be over there!” And I wasn’t. How many of my tears are of guilt and remorse I guess I’ll never know.

As a religious man, I have tried my best to live up to God’s plan for my life. There are too many coincidences — sheer blessings — for me to to believe there isn’t someone upstairs looking out for me. And so, my mind and my spirit tell me that writing is what I was made for. My mind and my spirit tell me that I can do more for God and country through the written word than I could with an M16A2 or an M4 carbine — but my heart often tells me I failed to be there for my buddy Leija or any number of other guys I knew from Charlie 1/18.

Perhaps the better question is: What would I be like if September 11th never happened? In a sick and twisted way, I think I would have been worse off spiritually. Hopefully, I’ll have many more September 11ths to turn it over in my head, along with the the friends I’ve met through this blog.

Thanks for reading,

Doug

What if this kid had stayed in the military instead of getting out and going to USC? I ask myself that almost every day.

Fank Miller’s Holy Terror: If You Hate It, Blame The Terrorists.

I wish Frank Miller’s Holy Terror didn’t have to exist, but it does. With that said, we should all thank our lucky stars that guys like him are willing to tell the story.

Frank Miller’s Holy Terror came out a decade after 9/11. For those who don’t know Frank by his artwork, you might recognize him by the celluloid adaptations: 300 and Sin City. If you’re fan of the grittier, darker portrayals of Batman, you can also thank Miller. In short, he’s an artist with a body of work that can claim to have reached the rarefied air of genius.

What really makes Frank Miller an interesting case study is his epiphanic eye opener to the “existential menace” that is radical Islam. His NPR piece, This Old Cloth, is beautiful and touching and sad:

Then came that sunny September morning when airplanes crashed into towers a very few miles from my home and thousands of my neighbors were ruthlessly incinerated — reduced to ash. Now, I draw and write comic books. One thing my job involves is making up bad guys. Imagining human villainy in all its forms. Now the real thing had shown up. The real thing murdered my neighbors. In my city. In my country. Breathing in that awful, chalky crap that filled up the lungs of every New Yorker, then coughing it right out, not knowing what I was coughing up.

For the first time in my life, I know how it feels to face an existential menace. They want us to die. All of a sudden I realize what my parents were talking about all those years.

Patriotism, I now believe, isn’t some sentimental, old conceit. It’s self-preservation. I believe patriotism is central to a nation’s survival. Ben Franklin said it: If we don’t all hang together, we all hang separately. Just like you have to fight to protect your friends and family, and you count on them to watch your own back.

So you’ve got to do what you can to help your country survive. That’s if you think your country is worth a damn. Warts and all.

The last pages of Holy Terror turn to Dan Donegal. “A hard man. A tough cop.” Interesting thing about Dan: he sports “a cough that comes out of nowhere, no telling when, making the most body-proud health nut sound like a chain smoker.” Funny thing is, when some of us see “Dan Donegal” on the page our minds read “Frank Miller”…and it’s with that lens customers should look through as they approach the book. Some reviewers haven’t done that, and as a result their analysis has been unfair.

The plot to Holy Terror is pretty cut-and-dry, as it should be. “The Fixer” and his sidekick, Natalie Stack, must weather a storm of suicide bombers and stop a larger terrorist plot from unfolding in Empire City. It’s that simple (mainly because the nuances are almost exclusively in the artwork). Readers who are upset over the mostly black and white (and red) presentation, or the storyline that lacks intricacy, miss the point entirely, which is to highlight the distinction between “us” and “them.” Dangerous? Yes. But Frank Miller should be commended for being one of the very few artists out there with guts to do it. Holy Terror isn’t just a comic — it’s a story about how 9/11 affected an artist who was there in New York — who had friends die in the terrorist attack. That is an aspect of the book Frank had no control over.

The Comics Alliance review by David Brothers asserts that the work is bigoted, the artwork at times incoherent in indecipherable. He complains about a panel of oblivious Transformers-watching American teens juxtaposed against the stoning of a woman in the Middle East.

Dear David,

The artwork is incoherent and sloppy at times (and at times truly touching) because it reflects the confused and complex feelings of the artist. It’s in black and white, but it’s still difficult to follow — just like the subject of 9/11 and Islamic terrorism! Detached, clueless teenagers who say “Kewl” and “Awesome” in Holy Terror are propped up against a stoning because Americans are clueless and detached from the very real stonings and state-sponsored murders that go on today in places like Iran.

For the first time in a comic book, someone had the guts to shed light on the barbaric practices going on, in 2011, in the Middle East. Bravo. (This too sickens David Brothers.)

Holy Terror is at times raw, confusing, and poignant. Sometimes it angers (do you think that might be intentional, David Brothers?). It also makes anyone who reads it wonder why it had to be written in the first place. Fans of Holy Terror know why, and some of us aren’t afraid to talk about it. Critics of the book liken any frank (no pun intended) discussion of Islamic terrorism to an attempt to make it synonymous with Islam as a whole. Again, whose fault is that? Perhaps we should ask Theo Van Gogh, the Dutch film director to whom Frank Miller dedicates the book. Or not…because he’s dead, slain by Islamic radicals.

Perhaps we should ask another comic book writer and movie director, Kevin Smith. Or not…because he’s busy writing horror movies about Christians.

Frank Miller is a brave man who wrote a bold book. Go out and buy it, and then tell a friend.