What do you do in the middle of a hijacking?
On the 20th anniversary of 9-11, Kylee Zempel over at The Federalist published a poignant reflection titled "Would you have stormed the cockpit?" Through the lens of that question, she examined the character necessary for the passengers of Flight 93 to take on terrorists armed with box-cutters and bombs. She further asked what sort of culture instills that character. It was a powerful piece. But it left unexplored the imminent reality that every American is already facing the same situation today.
The passengers of United Flight 93 were ordinary citizens who realized that their airplane had been hijacked. But that was only the first shock of the day. Until that day, hijackers made demands and promised safety if the demands were met. The proper response was: Stay calm and wait for the professional hostage negotiators to arrive. But that morning, everything changed.
Through cellular communication, the passengers of Flight 93 learned that three other hijacking situations had not ended by landing the plane and commencing hostage negotiations. Instead, one by one, planes slammed into targets, making the carnage ten times worse. It was this second shock that rocked their world. We have had decades of hindsight to process this. But the passengers of Flight 93 were forced to grasp their new reality in real-time.
They were trained neither as pilots nor as counter-terrorism experts. They lacked the luxury of time to ponder their predicament over days. Their only authority was the truth. And they had minutes to act. Imagine the hushed conversation among the passengers as they took in the situation and came to the horrific realization that the civilian plane they had boarded was now a militarized weapon.
The awesome power that enabled 90 tons of aircraft to convey passengers at 500 miles per hour had been converted into a missile with 7,000 gallons of jet fuel for its warhead. The threat went beyond the death of passengers. Rather, they themselves had become a weapon against untold innocents on the ground.
Todd Beamer understood clearly. The need to regain control of the airplane was not just about self-preservation. It was about the preservation of hundreds of people oblivious to the approaching threat. At that moment, the option of inactivity was wiped off the table. Duty is an unremitting obligation that cannot be shirked.
Beamer's wife, Lisa, confirms his realization in her book, Let's Roll! Ordinary People, Extraordinary Courage. There she related an interview with Lisa Jefferson, the last person with whom he spoke. Discussing his plan to rush the cockpit, Jefferson asked, "Are you sure that's what you want to do?" He answered, "It's what I have to do." There is no choice left in these words, only the solemn acceptance of responsibility.
Good citizens, like Beamer, do not see themselves as extraordinary heroes. They would rather spend extra time with the family than sally forth to battle. That, after all, is why Beamer was on the morning flight to San Francisco when others would have left the night before. It is precisely the deep wells of family and community that instill in good citizens the character necessary to rise to the occasion. All that is required to unleash those reservoirs of quiet strength is a recognition of the moment.
In the twenty years since, there has been so much focus on preventing more airplanes from being hijacked for evil purposes that other, more devastating hijackings have gone unnoticed. Today, it is not four airplanes, but a host of civic institutions that have been hijacked for evil.
Institutions, like airplanes, have been built to be powerful for the accomplishment of much good. But when control of these institutions is ripped from the people they were built to serve, the havoc they can wreak on civilization is proportional to their power for good. Institutional abuse is more than a danger to an institution's membership. Once hijacked, it can be an existential threat to innocents who are only vaguely aware of its existence.
For decades, the enemies of civility have long marched through America's institutions. The cockpits of corporations, professional associations, trade unions, charities, NGOs, political parties, and government bureaucracies have been invaded by people intent on destroying our world. Those who have poured out their talents and treasure to make these institutions strong are suddenly astonished to find themselves aboard so many missiles aimed at the heart of America.
For too long we have reacted to this situation like the hijacked hostages of old: staying calm and waiting for the professionals to act. But America is beginning to realize that the good guys have been neutralized. Their self-policing mechanisms have, themselves, been co-opted so that malignant behavior is no longer punished by forced resignations, firings, and public humiliation.
Like Todd Beamer, once you see the pattern, you can no longer escape the truth. But also like him, you likely find yourself inside one of these hijacked institutions. It may be a school system, your church, or your place of employment (government or corporate). You may be the only one positioned to prevent that institution from being used as yet another weapon against civilization.
Armed with the truth you see before your eyes, and the beckoning of your own humanity, you no longer have to wonder whether or not you would storm the cockpit. Assess your situation. Take responsibility. Develop a plan. Communicate with fellow passengers. Get up from your seat. Pray to the maker of heaven and earth. And take the only option that remains. "Let's roll."
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