The following is adapted from the keynote address that will be delivered Wednesday at the Flight 93 National Memorial, in Shanksville, Pa.
We gather here on this 18th anniversary of 9/11 at a complicated moment in our nation’s history, a time of hotly raging debates over the meaning of “American values.”
I’m an author and a professor, and I’m not here to be political. I’m here to make what I consider to be the apolitical case that — by their actions, their statements, and ultimately their shared sacrifice — the 40 passengers and crew members of United Flight 93 should be celebrated and emulated for representing the greatest of all American values.
When they boarded the flight in Newark, they came from an array of ethnic and racial backgrounds. They practiced a variety of religions. They held a range of political views.
And then, at 9:28 a.m., when confronted by terrorist hijackers, these 40 strangers set aside their individual interests. Through phone calls, they collected information about what happened at the World Trade Center and, soon after, the Pentagon. They turned to one another, sharing what they knew from those calls and what they could see in front of them.
And in mere minutes, they transformed into a cohesive unit and an unstoppable force. Again and again, in phone calls from the plane to the ground, they spoke of their planned uprising as a joint effort.
Passenger Tom Burnett told his wife Deena, “A group of us are getting ready to do something.” Flight attendant Sandy Bradshaw told her husband Phil that some passengers were getting hot water from the galley. Passenger Todd Beamer told Airfone supervisor Lisa Jefferson, “A few of us are getting together.” Flight attendant CeeCee Lyles told her husband Lorne, “We’ve got a plan.” Passenger Jeremy Glick told his wife Lyz that “some guys are rallying together.”
And then Jeremy told Lyz something even more remarkable. He said they were taking a vote. How American is that? Facing an existential threat, they decided to vote on a response.
From the phone calls and the recovered cockpit tapes, we know how that vote turned out. We know they banded together. We know they answered the call — “Let’s roll!” We know they fought bravely. We know they battled to the very end.
At the cost of their own lives, the rebels of Flight 93 found a measure of success by forcing the followers of Al Qaeda to crash the plane on the grounds where we gather today. In their determination to save themselves, they saved countless others in the US Capitol or the White House, and they gave us the first glimmer of hope at a terrible moment.
Let me also note that the people of Somerset County, Pa., in their own way, did much the same. When they raced to the land they knew as the old Diamond T coal mine, they didn’t ask who was on board the plane or where they were from or how they prayed. They only asked: How can we help?
Recently I was e-mailing with Donna Glessner, founder of the Flight 93 Ambassador Program. She was struck by how, in my book, I named all 40 passengers and crew members in a section that details their heroism. We talked about why I decided to list them all, especially since in the narrative I didn’t name everyone aboard the other three hijacked planes.
The fact is, when writing about Flight 93, I felt as though I didn’t have any other choice. In my line of work, it’s my goal to know exactly what happened. That way, I can convey it to readers with absolute certainty. But for the story of Flight 93, some details will forever remain unknowable, lost to history when the plane struck the ground. I’ve made my peace with that. More than that, I’ve embraced it.
The result is that we are compelled to celebrate every man and woman aboard that plane equally and collectively. Their story, like the American story, is about more than individual achievement or individual interests. It’s about the power of what can be accomplished when people trust one another and find strength in one another. In doing so, the men and women of Flight 93 changed from strangers to partners, from fingers to a fist.
As Abraham Lincoln said on another battlefield, one not far from Shanksville: “It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.”
It’s my belief that the legacy of the passengers and crew of Flight 93 — the work they “so nobly advanced” — was the cause of the common good.
In America, a stranger with different beliefs or background might become your greatest ally, your blood brother or sister, engaged alongside you in the fight for survival. Or perhaps the eternal struggle for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Be open to that possibility. By doing so, we can honor the sacrifice by the 40 heroes of United Flight 93 as the utmost embodiment of true American values.
Mitchell Zuckoff is the author of “Fall and Rise: The Story of 9/11” and is a professor of journalism at Boston University. As a reporter for the Globe, he wrote the lead story for the newspaper on 9/11.