It was an unusually clear and sunny Tuesday morning in September when Thomas Burnett Jr., senior vice president and chief operating officer of a medical research company, boarded a plane in Newark, New Jersey heading for his home in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Easing into his first-class seat as he accepted a glass of orange juice from the flight attendant, he nodded good morning to his row partner, Mark Bingham. Settling in for the five-hour flight, Thomas opened the front page of the New York Times – the early edition of the paper dated September 11, 2001.
Though Thomas and thirty-nine of his fellow passengers were headed for the West Coast, four others on Flight 93 had a different destination in mind. Ziad Jarrah, a Lebanese national, and three Saudi Arabians, Ahmed al-Haznawi, Ahmed al-Nami and Saeed al- Ghamdi, were poised to launch an unthinkable terrorist attack.
Jarrah, al-Haznawi, al-Nami and al-Ghamdi – members of the little-known al-Qaeda terrorist network – intended to use Flight 93 as a missile aimed at the heart America’s political life – the United States Capitol.
At approximately the same time as Burnett and Bingham took their seats on Flight 93, fifteen al-Qaeda conspirators boarded three other flights – one from Washington D.C., American Airlines Flight 77, and two from Logan in Boston, American Airlines Flight 11 and United Flight 175. In a coordinated attack, the conspirators would hijack those flights, seize their controls, and crash them into the Pentagon and New York City’s Twin Towers, catapulting America into two actual wars (in Iraq and Afghanistan) and a metaphoric one – the War on Terror.
The intended victim of Flight 93 was not its passengers nor its crew. The intended victim was the idea of America. The unintentional heroes were ordinary Americans who could easily have behaved differently than they did when faced with their own destruction. Had they privileged fear rather than action, our memories of 9/11 would include a devastated and smoldering national Capitol.
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