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Husband, father, grandfather, friend...a few of the roles acquired in 62 years of living.  I keep an upbeat attitude, loving humor and the singular freedom of a perfect laugh.  I don't let curmudgeons ruin my day; that only gives them power over me.  Having experienced death once, I no longer fear it, although I am still frightened by the process of dying.  I love to write because it allows me the freedom to vent those complex feelings that bounce restlessly off the walls of my mind; and express the beauty that can only be found within the human heart.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Flight 93: Lead, Follow, Or Get Out of the Way*

*Johnstown Tribune-Democrat, July 27, 2008

Copyright © 2008 by Ralph Couey

Contextual Note:  During the first half of 2008, a controversy developed over the sale of the last piece of land required for the construction of the permanent memorial to the passengers and crew of Flight 93 on 9/11. As the parties involved squabbled back and forth, public exasperation grew. This essay was an attempt to give voice to those feelings.

Many of us have watched, with no small amount of disgust, as the drama over the Flight 93 Memorial has played out on the airwaves and front pages of the region. What should have been a simple land purchase has taken on the drama of a soap opera. Both sides in the dispute have made pious proclamations to the rest of us through the media blaming each other for the apparent impasse. I'll not waste valuable column inches rehashing the issues here, except to voice my impression that nobody's being completely honest.

This is not terribly unique. We all remember the charges and counter-charges sailing through the air as New York City tried to reach a consensus on the design and execution of the memorial planned for Ground Zero. For some reason, these memorials have become focal points for clashing political views. The problem with that, of course, is through that process, the meaning and the point that lies behind the existence of such memorials becomes obscured, even tarnished.

The memories of that day are beginning to fade from the collective consciousness. The shock, outrage, and sorrow that almost all of us felt are being replaced, it seems, by a regrettable amount of cynicism. This cynicism has been brought on by the use of the attacks, by both parties, as political brickbats on an electoral battlefield that is rapidly devolving into a conflict with all the elegance of a classic Five Points brawl.

A lot happened on September 11, 2001. Four airliners were hijacked. Three were deliberately crashed into landmarks symbolic of American economic and military power. The first three happened in comparatively rapid succession and the evidence suggests that the passengers aboard those ill-fated jets were probably only dimly aware of the magnitude of the disaster unfolding that morning. Consequently, there was no time for passengers to mount any resistance, or for the people in the targeted structures to evacuate.

Flight 93 was different. Heavy traffic delayed their departure, which meant that when the aircraft left the runway at 8:42 a.m., Flights 11, 175, and 77 were already airborne. In fact, the terrorists had already assumed control of the first two aircraft and were in that process on Flight 77. For reasons that remain murky, the takeover of Flight 93 didn't occur until 9:28, 46 minutes into the flight. Within 4 minutes, passengers began calling people on the ground, and in that process, hearing for the first time about the terrible events occurring in New York and Virginia. The passengers, according to conversations with family on the ground, decided to fight back. At 9:57, the counter-attack began. Six minutes later, as they finally broke into the cockpit, Flight 93 rocketed into the ground in a reclaimed strip mine near Shanksville. (Timetable from the 9/11 Commission Report)

Many, many words have been written and spoken about the courage of those passengers and crew. The quote that really sums it up for me actually comes from Ronald Reagan: "They counted on America to be passive. They counted wrong." Their actions were so quintessentially American in nature; refusing to be victims, disdaining surrender, disregarding the odds and the danger, they stood up and fought back. Their grim determination to resist expressed in the words of Todd Beamer: "Let's Roll."

That's what makes a memorial so important, so vitally necessary. The memory of their valor must not be allowed to fade.

I don't know the issues that stand between the parties and closing this deal, and frankly I don't really care. It's time for both sides to step back and remember why this memorial exists in the first place. As Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain once said of Gettysburg,

"Heroism is latent in every human soul, however humble or unknown. In great deeds, something abides. On great fields, something stays. Spirits linger to consecrate the ground. And generations that know us not, shall come to this field to ponder and dream; and the power of the vision will pass into their souls."

Please. Do whatever it takes to make it happen. Summon up the same kind of selfless courage displayed by those the memorial will honor.

Or if that doesn't work for you, just get out of the way.
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