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Sunday, September 11, 2011

A Day of Necessity and Virtue

“Great necessities call out great virtues,” wrote Abigail Adams. September 11, 2001, was a day of necessity and virtue. Hijackers seized United Airlines Flight 93 on its way from Newark to San Francisco. At first, passengers thought that the hijackers just wanted to divert the flight. But when they called family members, they learned that other planes had just flown into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. They fought back. Amid hand-to-hand combat, Flight 93 crashed into a field in western Pennsylvania.

Americans then gave millions of dollars to help the families of those who died in the attacks. So many volunteers flocked to New York that officials had to turn most away. Others either got in touch with groups such as the Red Cross, or they started new ones. This response illustrated what Alexis deTocqueville noted: “Americans of all ages, all stations in life, and all types of dispositions are forever forming associations.”

The passengers and crew of Flight 93 showed this tendency themselves. They did not strike out randomly. Instead they formed an association of sorts, quickly discussing how to get into the cockpit. They even took a vote. This decision to fight was an example of what Tocqueville called “self-interest properly understood.” By taking on the hijackers, they realized, they could save lives on the ground and might even save their own. Among the passengers, Don Greene was a licensed pilot of small planes, and Andrew Garcia had been an air-traffic controller for the Air National Guard. With coaching from the ground, they might have made an emergency landing.

We can see a related facet of the country’s character in the presence on Flight 93 of Garcia and former paratrooper William Cashman. Since colonial days, many Americans have fulfilled their desire to serve by joining the militia, the reserves, or the active-duty military. After September 11, as in times past, service members faced upheavals in their lives. Men and women in the National Guard took leave from their civilian jobs to tighten airport security. Meanwhile, the Pentagon activated thousands of reservists. And within weeks, United States forces were fighting in Afghanistan. Major wars have also called out sacrifices on the home front, as civilians have given time, money, and blood to support those in uniform.

Another passenger on Flight 93 was Todd Beamer, who became famous for what an operator heard him say as he put down his phone: “Are you guys ready? Let’s roll.” Moments earlier, he had asked her to pray with him. That evening, lawmakers gathered on the steps of the U.S. Capitol, reportedly the target of the Flight 93 hijackers. After their leaders spoke of their resolve, they joined to sing “God Bless America.” Nine days later, President George W. Bush addressed them and concluded: “In all that lies before us, may God grant us wisdom, and may He watch over the United States of America.”