The heroes of United 93

WTC-911In Greek mythology, the gods would sometimes take human lovers. The offspring of these liaisons were the demigods, known more popularly by the name heroes. The heroes were mortals with extraordinary powers. They were great warriors, and are the likely inspiration for many of the modern day superheroes found in our graphic novels.

The Greek heroes were mighty because the blood of the gods ran in their veins. They had courage because few mortals could best them in a fight. They were honored because they fought alongside men with the strength of the gods.

On September 11, 2001, the heroes of United Airlines flight 93 were, by comparison, a weak and unremarkable group. They were ordinary men and women on a regularly scheduled flight to San Francisco engaged in one of the mundane routines of modern life — flying cross-country for business, or to visit friends, or returning home from a quick trip to the east coast.

They boarded their flight anticipating yet another quietly tedious flight. But when the doors were sealed, they became snagged in an extraordinary web of evil planned by a determined group of violent men. The passengers and crew of United 93 confronted that evil heroically, in the best traditions of the Greek heroes, losing their lives in a vicious battle but still managing to defeat the terrorists who had commandeered their flight.

United 93 had been delayed in heavy outbound traffic. By the time it was finally airborne, the horrific violence planned by the jihadist squads in the other three planes was already being played out. Five minutes after United 93 lifted off, American Airlines flight 11 exploded into the upper stories of the North Tower of the World Trade Center.

Once the terrorists took control of United 93, passengers made frantic telephone calls to loved ones and were informed of the horrific attacks in New York and Washington. The realization of the evil planned for them by the jihadists must have dawned on these men and women like an unfolding nightmare. They were faced with a choice none of them really wanted to make: to sit passively and await their fate, or fight back and attempt to thwart the hijackers’ plans.

The 9/11 hijackers had long been steeped in the pitiless anger of Islamic jihadist propaganda, an anger that held nothing but hatred for the West and all unbelievers. By all accounts, the young jihadists were excited to have been appointed as instruments of murder in the cause of jihad.

The passengers of UA 93, by comparison, held no similar hatred for Islam or the Middle East. Few likely knew much at all about the growing Islamic jihadist movement being fueled by the grandiose political and religious aspirations of a wealthy Saudi named Osama bin Laden, his al-Qaeda terror organization, and its Wahhabi allies.

In fact, the passengers on board UA 93 likely never understood the aims of the angry young men who had taken over their plane. Their eventual decision to regain control of the aircraft was neither political nor religious. They acted from a very human desire to save themselves and each other, but more than that, they were clearly responding to a sense of responsibility, a sense of duty, to do all that could be done to try to save the lives of those they did not know somewhere up ahead in Washington, D.C.

They threw themselves at men wielding knives with nothing more than pots of hot water, fire extinguishers and their own bodies. They courageously rushed the hijackers and attempted to storm the cockpit, but in the ensuing fight the hijackers deliberately dove the plane into the ground in a meadow not far from Shanksville, PA.

The jihadists burned with hatred for the West, hatred for America and hatred for non-Muslims. It was hatred that pushed them through months of training and hatred that led them to sacrifice themselves and so many innocents in the cause of jihad.

In contrast, the passengers and crew of United 93 were spurred to action by love. That must sound strange. They surely had no love for the evil men who had spilled innocent blood in New York, Washington, and now in the very aisles of the plane they were trapped in. Nevertheless, it was their love of life, their love for each other, and their love for the untold numbers of innocents at risk in Washington that motivated these ordinary men and women to act heroically.

Heroism is always an act of love. It is a willful decision to put someone else’s safety and well-being ahead of your own, to set aside self-interest and self-preservation for the good of another.

Jesus said many very difficult things. Among them is this insight into the nature of love:

There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. — John 15:13, NLT

Jesus was attempting to explain something about his own death, which was but hours away when he spoke these words. But he was also establishing a principle meant to govern how we live together as a just and humane society. Life is a precious gift from God, and we all have within us a very good and necessary desire to guard this gift and keep it from harm.

But the miracle of love is even more precious — and rare — than the miracle of life. Love is not some silly romantic notion or warm feeling, nor is it a lofty and unattainable ideal — love is a moral north star that compels us to place the needs and well-being of others before ourselves.

Love is self-sacrificing; love is outward rather than inwardly focused; love is courageous. Love is not content to stand on the sidelines and watch; it must act, and when it acts, it is ready to takes risks for the benefit of others.

The heroes of United 93, gone ten years now, would have preferred to have stepped off that plane safely in San Francisco and live out their natural lives in quietness and peace. The hijackers didn’t give them that option. So the brave men and women on board that plane collectively swallowed their fears and regrets, ignored their slim chance of success and came together as a team committed to supporting each other to the end. They charged for the front of the plane and kept on charging, until they could do no more.

On this tenth anniversary of their brave sacrifice, may they inspire us to live boldly and heroically, guided in everything we do by the north star of God’s love.

Photo credit: The New York Times

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  1. And then there are those who lay down their lives for their friends one day at a time in spite of having options and with no surge of adrenalin to drive them. As is the case with the passengers of flight 93, none of their sacrifice goes unnoticed and none of them will lose their reward.

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