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Author: Randall D. Larson
Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content
Originally Published as Editor’s Desk in our Sept/Oct 2006 issue.
Watching UNITED 93, the film about the passengers who fought back against terrorists and prevented them from crashing the plane into the White House or US Capitol building, is quite an emotional experience, especially for those of us in public safety and to whom the events of 9/11 resonate with an especially personal clarity.
As the film unfolds and we see the passengers of Flight 93 settling into the routine of air travel, a palpable sense of dread descends into our stomach, since we know that none will survive. The film carries us into that jet, experiencing ourselves what may likely have happened on that flight, and we can’t help but think, if caught in that situation ourselves, what would we have done? How would we have reacted? Would we have the courage and fortitude to take a stand, as they did? The value of good cinema, of films like this, is in allowing us to face these thoughts, holding them up as a mirror to how we conduct our own lives; pre-planning, as it were, our own response and resolve if found in the same circumstances.
I have often said that the biggest difference between what happened on board United 93 and that of American 77, United 175, and American 11 was in the information available to the passengers onboard 93. Because of delays in takeoff and hesitancy in activating the hijack, the events transpiring on September 11th became known to the passengers and crew onboard United 93 as they communicated by cell phone with loved ones. As UNITED 93’s director Paul Greengrass has noted, they were the first people to become aware of the post-9/11 world, and to make informed decisions that would alter the plans of the murderers who had taken control of the airplane.
The other part of UNITED 93 I found very interesting was in its depiction of the interaction between air traffic control stations as they began to realize what was transpiring in the skies of our country. Many of us who are public safety dispatchers can relate to the actions, perspectives, duty, and responses of our cousins behind the air traffic control screens, between various civilian and military control stations. Again, we reflect: what would we have done?
“I wanted this film to be about the terror of our age, because we feel it, each of us, when we get on an airplane,” said Greengrass in his director’s commentary on the DVD release of UNITED 93. “It’s there all the time, the fear and the anxiety, and it demands of us the question that the passengers and crew of United 93 had to grapple with: what are we going to do, what can we do? …We’ve got to find answers to [that] problem, because we’re all on United 93.”
This not a film abut blame and nor should it be. It is a film about honor. Too many of our citizens have sought to lay blame anywhere except where it belongs: on the heads of those who planned and perpetuated these hateful attacks upon Americans. This film portrays the events as they occurred in the control towers and as they most likely occurred onboard United 93, and it allows us to share in the emotions and the resolve of our fellow citizens as they determined to take matters out of the hands of their hijackers and resume control of the airplane, if only for a short time.
But in those short moments, they won the day.