Thirty-two minutes. That is the amount of time that passed between the moment passengers on United Flight 93 were snapped from their drowsy morning reverie-finishing breakfast, staring out the windows, snoozing, reading, thinking about their jobs or spouses or children or joys or frustrations-and the moment they charged, unarmed, toward a team of mass murderers, having decided to take back the plane or die trying, in order to save the lives of others.

Thirty-two minutes.

Thirty-two minutes to experience the shock of normal aerial routine disrupted by screams as four loathsome fanatics with red bandanas tied around their heads jumped up and commandeered the plane; to hear a brief fight in the cockpit, followed by the screams of the two pilots being stabbed to death by attackers who took them unawares; to experience the horror of being herded into the back of the plane by the killers, blood fresh on their hands; to get out their cell phones and call loved ones only to learn that three other hijacked jetliners had been crashed by other fanatics into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon; to realize what this meant about their own peril; to make the fateful decision to fight back and save hundreds on the ground at the White House, their hijackers' likely target. Thirty-two minutes to accept the almost certain arrival of their own deaths, to call their loved ones to say goodbye, think their last thoughts in this life, and to pledge to each other-total strangers-the willingness to make the ultimate sacrifice to save other total strangers.

Thirty-two minutes. Could any among us have gone from half-asleep to an ultimate resolve in such a short time? And in such a short time risk not just death in the name of others, but horrible death? Little can be understood with surety from the chaotic cockpit tape recording of the final struggle for the controls of Flight 93, but dozens of screams are heard. The passengers, counterattacking unarmed-their only weapon pots of boiling water taken from the coffeemaker in the coach galley-surely were stabbed by the knife-armed hijackers.

Thus, fighting their way into the cockpit they endured physical agony. Then the struggle for the cockpit resulted in the flight controls being pushed forward and the plane flipping upside down and tumbling as it roared toward the ground, which must have been utterly terrifying for those onboard. Terrifying both for those who counterattacked and for those who didn't join the charge, who did not know what was happening. Terrifying even for someone who had mentally accepted what would come.

It would have been easier for the passengers of Flight 93 to do nothing but cower and pray in the back until the plane plowed levelly into the White House and their lives ended painlessly in a millisecond. Instead they chose the hard, awful way because that is what morality demanded.

Thirty-two minutes to go from half-asleep to fighting for the chance to die, in order to save others.

Many people have done wicked things on this Earth in 2001, and many have done great and kind things: from September 11th alone there are multiple examples of each. Surely there are those whose names we will never know who in nations around the world, in the name of numerous faiths including Islam, have endured heroic struggles or taken incredible risks to protect or aid or comfort fellow human beings. Nevertheless, we must stand in awe of what the passengers of Flight 93 did in those 32 minutes.

Some have said that the passengers of Flight 93 really had no choice, since they were doomed in any case. But they did have a choice-to sit quietly in the back, frozen within their own terror, not being stabbed, not being flipped upside down, talking to loved ones as long as possible, and experiencing the last minutes of their lives on their own terms. Even, perhaps, hoping somehow their hijacking would be different and their plane would land. The passengers of Flight 93 had this distinct choice, and instead chose what was hard and awful in order to save others.

They also saved their nation from additional harm-had the White House been destroyed too, the damage to the dream of America would have been incalculably worse--and gave free people everywhere an inspiration. But from what is known about their hurried phone contacts, such things were not on their minds. They had a simple calculus: if they had to die, they would not allow the fanatics to kill others as well. This even forced them to act immediately, because they were over rural land but flying towards populous Washington. And they did act. We will never know exactly what happened in the final moments of Flight 93-who fought, who was bravest, who sobbed, who panicked, who hid behind seats. Each of us will never know whether we would have fought or hid, and let us pray to God that no one in the coming year will have to face this decision.

But we do know the names of those who said by phone that they were rallying for the fatal charge, and those on the plane who had military, law-enforcement, or athletic backgrounds and were likely to have joined. Those names are:

  • Todd Beamer

  • Alan Beaven

  • Mark Bingham

  • Sandy Bradshaw

  • Thomas Burnett

  • Jeremy Glick

  • Linda Gronlund

  • William Cashman

  • Lauren Grandcolas

  • Richard Guadagno

  • CeeCee Lyles

  • Lou Nacke
(A complete list of the passengers and crew--all of whom lost their lives heroically-can be found here.)

May these names be remembered for a thousand years. Terrorism has people willing to die to slaughter others; freedom has people willing to die to save others.

Jesus said, "No one has no greater love than this, than to lay down one's life for one's friends." The passengers of Flight 93 knew nothing about the distant strangers for whom they laid down their lives. But in accepting the ultimate sacrifice, they showed they believed all the people of America to be their friends. By extension, they believed all people of good will everywhere-including all Muslims of good will-to be their friends. This was the greatest spiritual achievement of 2001, and may it be remembered by free people of good will for a thousand years or longer.

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