Written by David Vogel Tuesday, 06 September 2011 15:39
The Civil War was fought largely by untrained civilians who were called into service purely by their desire to defend the peace and freedom of the country they loved.
In the midst of the struggle, President Abraham Lincoln stood in a quiet, nondescript Pennsylvanian field to offer words of remembrance and hope.
“But in a larger sense we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow this ground,” he said. “The brave men, living and dead, who struggled, here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but can never forget what they did here.”
Five years ago, I was standing in another quiet, nondescript Pennsylvanian field. This hallowed ground was the epicenter of a battle that started hundreds of feet in the air; a battle that called untrained civilians into service purely by their desire to defend the peace and freedom of the country they loved.
After that experience, I was inspired to write a reflective column for the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.
We are now a decade out from that day, and monuments and memorials are opening to the public for the first time. Patriot or pacifist, it’s important to remember these monuments cost us far more than millions of dollars; they cost us the lives of thousands of innocent victims and selfless heroes.
No amount of money can construct a memorial that will consecrate these grounds in New York City, Washington, D.C., and that Pennsylvanian field more than those who fought and died there. With this sentiment, I am compelled to share this column from September 2006 with you again.
* * *
I’m standing in a field. In front of me, an American flag snaps in a brisk wind. Behind me, a small group of people are gathered around a section of chain-link fencing. The fence is covered in flags, newspaper clippings, notes of gratitude and plush animals.
There is a lone, child’s toy airplane at the top of the fence. It is simply decorated with these words: Flight 93.
A guide is talking to the group of people. She is discussing how many visitors come to this little meadow each day.
“It’s amazing how many people find it,” she is saying. “The road isn’t well marked.”
And she’s right. The small highway that leads to the site has almost no markings indicating that anything significant has ever happened here. It shouldn’t. This isn’t a tourist attraction.
This is a cemetery.
Five years ago, our nation was shaken from its warm cocoon of security by a series of attacks that forever changed us. The brutality and insensitivity for human life from those who planned and carried out the attacks permanently marred our country’s facade of invincibility.
The terrorists who committed the most terrible act of all—taking innocent blood—got what they wanted. They got their few seconds of fame. They turned the greatest nation in the world upside-down.
And for all that, what did they gain? Their own death. You have to admire the irony of the situation.
But that’s not what we remember when we think back to that horrible day. What we do remember is the passion and the sorrow, which flowed so freely throughout our nation. And above all, we remember the bravery and heroic efforts of those who were called into the line of duty to help those in distress.
Particularly the actions of those who did not sign up for it, but went into battle only out of true selflessness for a nation they loved: Flight 93.
The 40 passengers who boarded United Airlines Flight 93 on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, did not know they would become heroes within a matter of minutes. They were simply ordinary people, going about their separate lives.
But when the hijackers took over the plane, they knew they were no longer 40 ordinary people. They were now 40 ordinary people who had one common goal: to get the plane down before the terrorists could carry out their mission.
Without selfish thoughts of themselves, they went into action and took the controls from the bloody hands of terrorism. The aircraft dove toward the ground, flipped upside-down, and hurtled into this quiet Pennsylvanian field.
Five years later, the scars to the land have healed. The only indication that anything ever happened in this forgotten countryside is a grassy mound left behind by the impact, the small group of visitors, and the simple memorial fence.
Almost everything incinerated upon impact. Most of the remains of our heroes will remain here, lost in the ground, forever.
This is a cemetery.
The guide is saying the official national memorial will most likely be completed by the 11th anniversary of the attacks.
In a few years, the small, rock parking lot will be replaced by a larger one, paved with asphalt and marked with lines.
The highway will be widened, and more signs will advertise the way to the area.
The chain-link fence will be taken down and disassembled, its simple, but profound, decorations put into storage.
The “temporary memorial” is small potatoes compared to the $30 million plan. And as I gaze out at the spot where the plane collided with the earth, I can’t help but feel that maybe something of that proportion is not really necessary to remember and cherish those who managed to rewrite the upcoming chapter that would have made Sept. 11 even more terrible.
To me, a large memorial is to remember important events of huge proportions, such as wars. It is a way to show the greatness of soldiers in active duty, fighting for their country at a massive level.
But Flight 93 was not a massive war with soldiers marching in step, military-issue weapons in tow. Flight 93 was a group of 40 people who, out of sheer circumstance, got on the wrong plane at the wrong time. They acted out of compassion, not by orders being hollered by a commander.
Transforming this simple field into a tourist attraction, as I see it, will only contribute to losing its innocence. Our culture wires it into our minds that bigger is better.
However, I feel the simple gesture of making an effort to find the location, and then leaving a small token of gratitude, speaks far louder words—“Thank you,” “I love you,” “I miss you,” “You’re my hero”—than putting millions of dollars into a such a task. This is not a war zone.
This is a cemetery.
I’m not saying our heroes don’t deserve a memorial of that magnitude. These people died doing what they truly felt and knew was right. Their actions sincerely showed what being American is all about.
But whatever ends up happening to this quiet field, the 40 passengers aboard Flight 93 will never be forgotten.
Their courage belongs to the United States of America. Their spirits belong to God. Their bodies belong to the earth in this grassy Pennsylvanian field. This is their final resting place.
This is a cemetery.