Friday, May 26, 2006

United 93

I went to see United 93 simply because I had to. I was drawn to revisit the horrific savagery of Militant Islam unmasked, but I mainly wanted to see its antidote -- the heroism of the heart of the free ... and the brave.

I went not quite knowing what to expect, but I was expecting a lot. The movie did not disappoint.

There was so much, from the eerie beginning where the jihadi pilot interrupts the morning prayers of his co-conspirators by announcing, "It is time," to the gut-wrencing conclusion where the plane plows into a Pennsylvania field ... with no sound.

My thoughts and emotions, swirling for two hours, filled the soundless void as I thought of the mothers, dads, loved ones, sweethearts, women murdered by the ruthless enemy that we now fight.

And fight we must. This is a central theme and inescapable conclusion that is powerfully delivered by the film.

As the events of 9/11 unfolded in the movie, I was struck by the unsung acts of heroism and professionalism as a free society scrambled to defend itself against a surprise attack by its totalitarian enemies. The chaos and emotional reality of this scramble for life was well-done in the movie. Only in history books is heroism and combat neat and clean.

The twists of this for-real plot are many. Inexplicably, the jihadis plan failed to account for the routine delay out of Newark on the morning of 9/11. United 93 was delayed about 40 minutes, as it often was, as the jihadis in first-class sweated it out. This delay in takeoff meant that that the United 93 strike -- apparently meant for the U.S. capitol -- would not be coordinated with the strikes at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Further, the jihadis failed to account for the likely use of cell phones by passengers who could then be informed by people on the ground (thanks to the 24-hour news cycle) of the events of 9/11. Combining the foregoing, the jihadis did not account for the passengers' ability to learn the plot before it would be carried out.

Most importantly, though, the jihadis failed to account for the heart and heroism of a group of ordinary, randomly-assembled Americans.

The movie convinced me that Divine Providence intervened on United 93. For instance, flight attendants assisting a stabbed passenger managed to see both pilots in the front of plane lying on the floor and covered in blood. This image, when relayed to the passengers assembled in the rear of the plane, stirred momentary horror, but then action.

"Who is flying the plane then?," one passenger asked. If passengers believed that an American commercial pilot was flying the plane, then perhaps they would have gone quietly. This is apparently what occurred on the three other flights. Once the passengers realized that a jihadi was at the controls, though, the situation began to change on United 93.

As cell phone calls went out to loved ones, the passengers learned the horrifying details of what was unfolding on 9/11. And then they began informing each other. By these myriad, desperate calls home, we have a good picture today of what unfolded on United 93.

Realizing that their plane would be used as a missile by the jihadi pilot, the decision to act was quickly reached by a group of men on the flight.

A plan was made, albeit it would be a long shot. There was a pilot on the plane (although with no jet or commercial experience) and an air traffic controller, too. The passengers hoped not simply to take the plane down, but to take it back form the suicidal jihadis. It was a long shot, but if it failed they would at least keep the plane from flying into an American target. Still, all realized that their prospects were grim.

A passenger with a foreign accent counseled against provoking the jihadis. He was overruled.

Crying passengers made final phone calls. This was hard to watch. The passengers were terrified in these final moments, but they proceeded with courage nonetheless.

Indeed, courage isn't the absence of fear but proceeding to do the right thing in the face of it.

And speaking of courage, men gathered in the back of the plane to arm themselves with makeshift weapons, such as forks, knives, a fire extinguisher, whatever. It was inspiring to watch their presence of mind and adaptability under such duress.

Then they spent a moment to reflect. The chaotic scene was hardly one for reflection, either. They made final calls.

Todd Beamer recited the Lord's prayer, and prompted his fellow passengers with the now-famous, "Let's roll". Jeremy Glick, a 31-year-old Jewish man who happened to know judo ("I'll break his arm, like this ..."), led the attack.

As I was watching, I was reminded of how the jihadis can only prevail when they have the element of complete surprise. They can't face us like men. They are weak. The passengers of United 93 exposed them as such.

And surprise only carries you so far. Ask the Japanese. Furthermore, it is operationally impossible to maintain the element of surprise at each stage of a long conflict. If you are going to need surprise for victory, you must deliver a knockout blow. But the jihadis are incapable of such a blow.

As the men came up the aisle, knife-wielding jihadis were taken down and a drink cart became a battering ram to break down the cockpit door. Inside the cockpit, the jihadi pilot realized that his mission was finished ... and would fail. He had placed a picture of the capitol on the stick.

The passengers ultimately reached the cockpit and then got their hands on the pilot. Then the plane came down.

As United 93 approached Washington, there were no planes in the area with shoot-down authority. That is, but for the heroism of the passengers aboard United 93, the plane would have almost certainly slammed into the capitol at nearly 600 mph.

Though the government was not ready yet to respond, its people were already engaged in the battle. America's first fighting unit of the post-9/11 world had been randomly-assembled on a commercial flight. And these ordinary Americans, with not even a former member of the military among the group that stormed the cockpit, planned and mounted their own surprise attack.

Steeped in backward radicalism, prejudice and completely ignorant of American history, it's understandable that the totalitarian, jihadi mind would fail to anticipate meeting a man like Tom Burnett on United 93. Indeed, radical Islam doesn't produce men like Tom Burnett.

The film depicts Tom Burnett as leading the planning of the passenger assault on the cockpit. Here is what Burnett told his wife in his last phone call to her: "We're all going to die, but three of us are going to do something." Then he signed off: "I love you, honey".

Shortly after his final words to his wife, Burnett and his fellow passengers won the first engagement of the post-9/11 world.

Speaking of American heroism, I am looking forward to Memorial Day. I'll see you then.