News From Terre Haute, Indiana

September 9, 2012

MARK BENNETT: What we are first

At times, labels, divisions and feuds seem very tiny

Mark Bennett
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — We love labels.

For the past two weeks, as America’s two major political parties conducted national conventions, the U.S. population formally split into three groups — Democrats, Republicans, and none of the above. Each of those factions have been further divided and branded — liberals, neo-liberals, conservatives, neo-conservatives, “new” Democrats, moderate Republicans, Reagan Republicans, independents, Libertarians, and tea partiers. And, of course, each of those sub-units pin unwanted labels on their rivals — right-wing wackos, radical leftists, birthers, wild-eyed fringers, extremists, and reactionaries.

Sadly, the division too often goes beyond political affiliations.

Tuesday marks the 11th anniversary of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Ceremonies are planned at the three sites where hijacked jetliners crashed — the financial district in New York City, the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and a hilly mining field north of Shanksville, Pa.

A year ago, on assignment for this newspaper, I visited those places, along with my wife and daughter. At each spot, we heard powerful stories about lives lost, painful memories, heroism, and the will to go on. Among dozens of gripping conversations, one still stands out.

Inside a tiny country chapel, created as a memorial to the passengers and crew of United Airlines Flight 93, I listened to Ed Root describe his first-cousin, Lorraine Bay, who was to him “like the big sister I never had.” Most of us have heard some version of this story during the past 11 years. It hits deeper when the narrator is a victim’s loved one, standing in the area where the unthinkable happened.

Bay, a flight attendant, and 39 other crew members and passengers died on 9/11 when Flight 93 slammed into the grassy hillside of a mine operation at 10:03 a.m. Forty-six minutes into the flight, intended to go from Newark, N.J., to San Francisco, four al-Qaida terrorists overwhelmed the pilot and co-pilot and rerouted the jet toward Washington. Through discreet cellphone and airphone calls from the back of the plane to family members and emergency operators on the ground, passengers learned that three other hijacked planes already had hit national landmarks in New York (the Twin Towers) and D.C. (the Pentagon). By 9:30, Flight 93 was less than 20 minutes away from Washington and the Capitol and the White House.

The passengers and crew, who began that clear-skied Tuesday thinking of sunny California, faced the decision of a lifetime.

Sit tight, hoping that outside forces would intervene and prevent a crash and widespread loss of life and chaos in the nation’s capital, or fight back.

Root, a retired business analyst from Allentown, Pa., explained the situation in a quiet voice, poignantly, as he and I stood talking in the Flight 93 Memorial Chapel last year.

“The people of Flight 93 wanted to live,” he said. “There’s no doubt in my mind. They didn’t want to die that day.

“They wanted to get control of the plane and, if possible, to survive,” he continued. “But they knew, from all the phone calls, that if they didn’t do something, it would be far worse. So it really is a comparison of philosophies, of a free society versus a terrorist society. One is, their cause is death; the other is, their cause is life. And that’s what makes [the Shanksville site] worthy of a national memorial. That’s what makes this worth being remembered.

“The physical courage, to me, is amazing and wonderful, but it even goes beyond that.” Root said. “These people, in a half-an-hour, got information, sat down together, discussed it, shared information, decided to act, and then acted — in a half-an-hour. We all have to think, ‘What would I have done if I was there?’ And I think that’s one of the reasons that make this place so moving for people, because I think that you can’t help but have that cross your mind.”

These folks chose to fight back. Their uprising forced the hijackers, clinging to the plane’s controls, to crash it short of their target.

Ed was right on the money, too. As you stand atop the serene hill overlooking the Flight 93 National Memorial, the silence forces a visitor to comprehend the unity those 40 people, mostly strangers to each other, summoned in a matter of a few harrowing, chaotic minutes.

Suddenly, those everyday people weren’t Democrats or Republicans, social conservatives or fiscal liberals. Two passengers were born in foreign countries, but divisions, borders and labels no longer mattered.

Instead, together, they acted, and saved lives while sacrificing their own.

Thus, that question visitors ponder in Shanksville, “What would I have done?” leads to another, “What am I first?” What label that we wear shapes our decisions, demeanor and interactions with other people? If that label doesn’t matter at the brink of life, should it significantly influence our day-to-day existence?

In two crises late this summer, the two candidates for president made statements of far more lasting relevance than the flavor-of-the-month arguments churning through the political ads this fall.

After a crazed gunman killed 12 people and injured 58 more in a Colorado movie theater, Republican nominee Mitt Romney said, “Our hearts break with sadness of this unspeakable tragedy. I stand before you today not as a man running for office, but as a father and grandfather, a husband, an American.”

A few weeks later, with Hurricane Isaac bearing down on New Orleans just seven years after Hurricane Katrina, President Obama said, “When disaster strikes, we’re not Democrats or Republicans first, we are Americans first.”

Political labels, divisions and feuds seem so small in that rural Pennsylvania field.

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or