Saturday, October 22, 2011

Reinventing the dead: United 93

Steven Johnston
University of South Florida

September 11, 2011 marked the tenth anniversary of what has come to be known, both nationally and internationally, as 9/11. Lest anyone forget (not that this was possible, of course, in the United States), we were inundated with reminders in the months, weeks, and days leading up to the commemorative ceremonies that took place in New York City, Arlington, Virginia, and Shanksville, Pennsylvania. As with prior anniversaries, the proceedings unfolded as if they had not been elaborately planned and choreographed.

This year Shanksville seemed to receive greater attention than it has in years past. Perhaps this was due to the significant progress made on the national memorial at the crash site. Perhaps it was due to the dominant patriotic narrative that has emerged surrounding United 93. Regardless, former Presidents Bill Clinton (video) and George W. Bush (video) delivered solemn yet stirring remarks to honor and salute the murdered passengers. The story they told: Like the first responders in New York, it was suggested, the passengers of United 93 took decisive action under extraordinary circumstances. Insofar as al Qaeda’s coordinated attacks on the United States amounted to a declaration of war, the passengers on United 93 staged an insurrection and converted a revolt into the first counterattack in the global war on terrorism. Though it cost them their lives, they were successful. The passengers of United 93, who morphed from hijack victims to citizens to patriots in the course of this flight, saved countless lives through their selfless actions. Their example endures as an inspiration to the rest of us, who must find a way to match their heroic service. The romance of this narrative is undeniable. It could even be argued that within its frame, the story has a happy ending: evil defeated, good triumphant and confirmed

The 9/11 Commission Report is the source for this patriotic legend. That it contains fictional elements will surprise no one. Did the passengers of United 93 actually save lives? Though treated as certainty, the evidence is ambiguous and inconclusive. There were fighters in the Washington area that might have shot it down or crashed into it kamikaze-styleMany want to deny this possibility because it seems to detract from the actions of the passengers of United 93. Either way, the hijackers apparently remained in control of the plane until it crashed and the cockpit recording suggests that they crashed it to prevent the passengers from assuming control. This was the hijackers’ backup plan. If the primary target (most likely the United States Capitol) could not be reached, the plane was to be crashed, which would still be counted a success. In short, the hijackers may have failed to reach their initial intended target, but they did not fail, not according to the terms they set for themselves.

From The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation
The dominant narrative that shapes the fate of United 93 disallows precisely such an account. The story that we (must) tell ourselves cannot countenance anything other than American agency in control of events, to say nothing of an American victory. The story of United 93 is thus a struggle over the terms of death. Murder must be made politically meaningful and the extraordinary actions of ordinary people lend themselves to creative recovery. They had to die and die willingly, for that is how they proved themselves (and the country) to be exceptional—ordinary no more but patriots for the ages. What does it mean, however, for the official narrative to claim that the passengers of United 93 sacrificed themselves to save others when they were going to die already and knew it? This is not a question to be asked, at least not on a patriotic memorial occasion. That’s not why the country was “celebrating” 9/11, to quote Rudy Giuliani.

Paul Greengrass’s United 93 (see the trailer here) might constitute a more fitting memorial to the passengers of United 93 precisely because it is not a patriotic rendering of events. The passengers, unnamed in the film, took action after they learned or realized three things: the World Trade Center had been attacked; the pilot and co-pilot were either seriously injured or dead, but certainly not flying the plane; and the plane had descended to such a low altitude that the hijackers had no intention of landing it. At this point, the passengers knew they had to act or die. In their midst was a trained pilot who, with assistance, might have been able to land the plane if the passengers could gain control of it (and ignoring for the moment the presence of fighter planes that might have downed it). Just minutes before United 93 crashed, the cockpit voice recorder registered the following words from one of the passengers: “In the cockpit. If we don’t, we’ll die.” In other words, the passengers of United 93 acted in the name of life—their lives, the lives of their loved ones, with whom many of the passengers were speaking during the last moments of the flight. They did not act for the country, but out of a spirit of resistance that characterizes life itself. This makes them no less remarkable or admirable; if anything it renders them more human. Why do we need to convert them into something other and supposedly greater than what they were? Doesn’t the country’s commitment to death (to killing and dying for it) normalize righteous anger, hate, enmity, and a false sense of innocence and exceptionalism? Doesn’t the country’s easy embrace of a horror story, in which sacrifice of life for country trumps the value of life itself, reflect and further an affective political orientation that resonates with the possible advent of fascism, a prospect recently explored by Bill Connolly? People should beware the kind of commemoration also known as the making of patriots.



Post a Comment