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109 minutes revisited

A cockpit voice recorder revealed this week that the passengers where engaged in a fight with the terrorists when the jetliner plunged into a field in Pennsylvania on Sept. 11.

It is additional evidence that the passengers foiled terrorist efforts to claim another target on the day that the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were targets of an attack.

 

By Brad Todd

Guest column

(Sept. 16, 2001)

It's been, of course, impossible to get past IT.

Even in a country with the attention span of a gnat, we're all still glued to the tube. The 24-hour news channels have heretofore proven they can make anything boring in short order, but this one drips with emotion so thick even they can't wring it dry.

Yep. We're as stuck on it as we were Tuesday morning.

Grocery store checkout banter is still single-subject. I understand it's the only topic at the manicurist's shop, too.I think even children sense how big IT is. The ones who walk by my front door don't have their normal sing-song cadence. There's no screeching. No laughter. They know something's not right.

What is IT?

Something besides the grief, I think -- although the grief is tormenting.

Something deeper than the shock -- although the shock is overwhelming.

No, I think it's the gut-level fear that for the first time in my generation, we were whipped.

Whipped by our own complacency. Our own comfort. Our own insistence on putting convenience ahead of precaution. Our own arrogance that let us forget that the world is a dangerous place.

And the outcropping of that fear is an angst about the new order. How long before we're not behind again? How much time must we spend off the top of the world? Out of control of our own lives?

This, of course, is the angst that people in most of the rest of the world feel every day. And if we look deep inside, we can probably acknowledge that for all our egalitarian pontifications, this is not the kind of equality and fraternal kinship in which we really believe.

I finally admitted this fear to myself three days after the attack. I wasn't particularly proud of it. It seemed like a shallow thing to fret over when such real suffering was all around me -- my house sits just three miles from the Pentagon, after all.

But there it was.

And the aftertaste of the bitter pill of my character flaw was the sad realization that such angst was Osama's primary objective. Buildings and airplanes and, yes, even 6,000 lives, were just the collateral damage. Despite the metaphoric value of last week's bricks and mortar targets, the real core of the Western economy isn't a skyscraper or a government building. It's the can-do swagger of the American worker. And bin Laden's soldiers cut deep into that swagger.

So he won.

Or did he?

I thought so ... until Friday night.

Friday night I watched a Jane Pauley interview with the family of Jeremy Glick. Jeremy Glick was a 31-year-old who flew as a passenger on commercial airplanes for a living. I describe him that way because right now I'm fairly convinced I'm just a 31 year old who flies planes as a passenger for a living...the other parts of my job having become less noticeable this week.

As the interview unfolded, I realized something I didn't know before: Jeremy Glick and the people on United Flight 93, bound from Newark to San Francisco, knew what was happening on the ground.

At 8:48 a.m. Mohammed Atta took a jet headlong into the north tower of the World Trade Center. Eighteen minutes later and accomplice did the same to the south tower.

When Jeremy Glick called his wife, his first question was an attempt to confirm something another passenger had heard on his spousal call: was the World Trade Center story true?

Lizzy Glick paused, thought for a minute, swallowed hard, and told him the truth. Yes, they had. Moments later, still on the line with her husband, Lizzy Glick saw that another plane had run into the Pentagon. She passed that information on as well to her husband, who relayed it to the other passengers.

Jeremy Glick then told her that the passengers were about to take a vote and decide if they should rush the hijackers and attempt to foul up whatever evil plans they had.

He put down the phone and a commotion was heard by those on the other end of the line. Then nothing. A dead line. An aborted missile launch against the town where I live.

That was 10:37 a.m. on Tuesday, September 11... just 109 minutes after Mohammed Atta rammed the first plane into the north tower of the World Trade Center.

Just 109 minutes after a new form of terrorism -- the most deadly yet invented -- came into use, it was rendered, if not obsolete, at least decidedly less effective.

Deconstructed, unengineered, thwarted, and put into the dust bin of history. By Americans. In 109 minutes.

And in retrospect, they did it in the most American of ways. They used a credit card to rent a fancy cell phone to get information just minutes old, courtesy of the ubiquitous 24-hour news phenomenon. Then they took a vote. When the vote called for sacrifice to protect country and others, there apparently wasn't a shortage of volunteers. Their action was swift. It was decisive. And it was effective.

United Flight 93 did not hit a building. It did not kill anyone on the ground. It did not terrorize a city, despite the best drawn plans of the world's most innovative madmen. Why? Because it had informed Americans on board who'd had 109 minutes to come up with a counteraction.

And the next time a hijacker full of hate pulls the same stunt with a single knife, he'll get the same treatment and meet the same result as those on United Flight 93. Dead, yes. Murderous, yes. But successful? No.

So I think the answer I come to is "yes, but at least not for long."

They did whip us. And maybe those of us who've demanded to be let on airplanes at the last minute fed a culture of convenience that made it possible.

But they only had us on the mat for 109 minutes.

Brad Todd is a political consultant who lives in Alexandria, Virginia.