The one thing the hijackers weren't | Bleader

The one thing the hijackers weren't

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United 93
  • United 93
Writing on his blog last Sunday, Roger Ebert argued that most movies inspired by 9/11 do not measure up "to the enormity of the reality." One that does, wrote Ebert, is Man on Wire, a docudrama about Philippe Petit, who in 1974 ran a wire between the tops of the two WTC towers and danced out onto it, entrancing the city below for several minutes. This is the film, Ebert concluded, that will enable the future to comprehend our loss: "It took ever so much more courage and skill to walk between the towers than to use them as the occasion for cowardly mass murder."

By almost any measure of the human spirit Petit and the hijackers are poles apart, and his impulse to celebrate the towers uniquely damns their impulse to destroy them. But cowardly? If he and they shared anything whatsoever, it was nerve. A handful of readers questioned Ebert online,"Tony" commenting, "It takes a lot of cojones to do what they did, zealots or not."

Think about it: The zealots' assignment was to leave behind forever the world they knew and move to a country that was not merely strange and hostile but, to their way of thinking, satanic. And there some of them would live for months, attending flight schools where their stories might be challenged and fall apart at any time. If any of them asked himself lucidly what the odds were they'd pull off this scheme, what would he have said? One in ten?

And if nothing went wrong and the weather was clear and they all boarded their planes successfully and took them over — then they'd die along with everyone else.

Lt. Heather Penney jumped into the cockpit of an F-16 at Andrews Air Force Base on 9/11 and flew off to intercept United Flight 93 any way she could, which, because she had virtually no ammunition, would have to be by ramming it. "God, don't let me fuck up," she prayed as she went up. She expected to die and didn't dwell on it. "I genuinely believed that was going to be the last time I took off,” she told the Washington Post. “If we did it right, this would be it.”

She would die in the collision and everyone in Flight 93 would die with her. Penney was certainly no coward. She was not even a zealot by our lights. She had a job to do. She's alive today because it turned out Flight 93 had already been forced into the ground by its passengers.

In 2006 reviewing United 93, a movie he admired, Ebert noted that it contained "scenes of the hijackers at prayer." But what of it? "That the terrorists found justification in religion . . . goes without saying. Most nations at most times go into battle evoking the protection of their gods."

Ebert went on, "But the film doesn't depict the terrorists as villains. It has no need to. Like everyone else in the movie they are people of ordinary appearance, going about their business. 'United 93' is incomparably more powerful because it depicts all of its characters as people trapped in an inexorable progress toward tragedy." Marking the terrorists as cowards would have gratuitously violated the movie's point.

On the subject of 9/11, America was for a long time like a hyperpartisan website where there is none of the oxygen dissent needs to survive. The idea that evil and cowardliness are not synonymous could be thought but it could not be uttered, which made it an idea not even easily thought. Even today, on ceremonial occasions like the tenth anniversary, it apparently still has no place.

Consider the "9/11 Epic Poem," which you can read online. It was written by Daniel Schilling a forklift driver in Wisconsin whose goal in life is "to honor God with all that I do." Schilling tells us his poem is 2,000 lines long and the rough draft alone took him two years to write, from 2008 to last year. It is a pretty astonishing piece of commemoration, and in it the hijackers play the role they apparently must — the role of cowards.

As engines roared the crews ignored
A group of scattered youths,
Whose nervous poise and lack of noise
Provided subtle clues.
They sat alone with eyes of stone,
Like rejects at a prom;
Or feeble grooms, when marriage looms,
Who’d rather stay with mom.

Their throats felt weak; they could not speak,
Apart from nods and sighs.
No friendly taunts nor chatty aunts
Could garner long replies.
They must not reach in thought or speech
To others in that throng,
Lest intercourse would breed remorse
And tell them they were wrong.

The last two lines might be wishful thinking, but the rest of it seems plausibly descriptive. And yet many a GI has gone into battle with his heart in his mouth. Pissing in his pants, for that matter.

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