Moments before storming the cockpit and crashing into a Pennsylvania field, several of the brave passengers aboard United Airlines Flight 93 said the Our Father prayer. In the film portrayal of the event, United 93 director Paul Greengrass intersperses this scene with shots of the hijacker pilot praying in Arabic. As the Muslim terrorist gets closer to the intended Washington target, one can’t help but fear (despite already knowing the outcome) that the terrified passengers gathered in the back of the plane will be no match for the death-seeking terrorists. That changes when Todd Beamer shouts his immortal words “Let’s roll!” and an irony both tragic and moving is suddenly made clear: At the moment of their deaths, the United 93 passengers perhaps never felt more alive.
Moviegoers might notice a similar paradox as they exit the theater feeling both heartbroken over the tragic deaths of forty innocent people and confident that the West will ultimately prevail in the War on Terror. This is important because as the calls for withdrawal from Iraq make clear, it is all too easy to become pessimistic when fighting an enemy that places no value whatsoever on human life.
Radical Islamists believe that their love of death guarantees them ultimate victory over a decadent West. Mohammed Hussein Mostassed, a former Taliban official, explained the source of their confidence: “The Americans are fighting so they can live and enjoy the material things in life. But we are fighting so we can die in the cause of God.” How will this translate into success in war? Abdallah Al-Naggar, a religious columnist for the Egyptian government daily Al-Gumhuriya, summed it up: “The believers do not fear the enemy [during] the struggle and do not protect their lives. Allah has promised them one of two good things: [either] victory or martyrdom…Yet their enemies protect [their] lives like a miser protects his money. They do not give [their lives] easily; they do not enter into battles seeking martyrdom; they do not act in order [to attain] martyrdom. This is the secret of the believers’ victory over their enemies—though the believers are few and they polytheists many, with advanced weaponry and equipment.”
But as the passengers on United 93 made clear to the terrorists, we have a secret weapon of our own: heroism. Think back to when the Bill Maher program Politically Incorrect was canceled by ABC after the comedian said that the September 11 hijackers were “not cowardly.” Not being cowardly does not necessarily translate into being brave. After all, how brave is to expedite one’s own trip to Paradise and 72 virgins by murdering innocent people?
Shortly after the attacks of September 11, columnist Robert Tracinski highlighted the difference between their martyrs and our heroes: “I wince every time I hear someone praise the ‘self-sacrifice’ of our firefighters, policemen and soldiers. Self-sacrifice, the deliberate destruction of one’s own life, is the essence of the enemy’s morality, not ours. Our heroes risk their lives only in cases of temporary emergency, and because they know that risking their lives is the only way to protect themselves and their loved ones from disaster, from predatory criminals, or from blood-lusting barbarians. The goal of our heroes is not death, but life and the freedom to live it.”
Ever since the United 93 passengers became “the first people to live in the post-9/11 world,” we have had no shortage of true heroes. After learning that other hijacked planes had crashed into the World Trade Center and Pentagon, Todd Beamer, Mark Bingham, Tom Burnett and the rest of the strangers brought together by fate decided that they couldn’t allow their plane to be used as a missile to kill thousands of other innocent people. So they took matters into their own hands and brought down the plane. The firefighters who ran into the burning World Trade Center on that same morning weren’t actively seeking to destroy their own lives; they were just doing their job by trying to save others. Pat Tillman turned down a $3.6 million dollar football contract to become an Army Ranger. Patriotism, not martyrdom, was the reason for his decision: “My great grandfather was at Pearl Harbor and a lot of my family has gone and fought in wars and I really haven't done a damn thing as far as laying myself on the line like that. And so I have a great deal of respect for those that have and what the flag stands for.” The American flag he fought for was lowered to half-staff throughout the country when Tillman was killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan.
Approaching an Islamic terrorist is an act of bravery in itself. The latest Palestinian suicide bomber in Israel would probably have been able to murder more than nine people during the Passover holiday had it not been for a courageous security guard. The terrorist was prevented from entering “The Mayor’s Falafel” restaurant in Tel Aviv when the security guard posted at the door stopped to check him. It was then that bomb was detonated and the guard torn in half by the blast.
Spanish SWAT team member, Javier Torrontera, was killed back in 2004 as he raided the apartment where the terrorists responsible for the Madrid bombings were holed up. They waited until the assault on the apartment before blowing up themselves and Torrontera. The fact that Torrontera’s body was later pulled from its tomb and burned in an apparent “Islamic rite of revenge” didn’t diminish the heroism of his actions. In fact, it turned out that the terrorists had follow-up attacks planned throughout Spain.
Indeed, all these stories are tragic. But it would be an even greater tragedy were we to forget them. Since our heroes would not want to learn that they had died in vain, we owe it to them to try and learn from their actions.
Paul Greengrass has created a remarkable tribute to American fallen heroes. For those people who don’t think they would be able to sit through United 93, think of this: After you wipe your tears away, you just might find yourself smiling.
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