What If United Flight 93 Doesn’t Crash In Western Pennsylvania?

What If: United Flight 93’s Passengers Hadn’t Crashed The Airplane On The Morning Of September 11, 2001?

Islamic radical terrorists had already hijacked three other passenger airplanes on September 11, 2001 and flown them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The fourth plane—United Flight 93—was also seized as planned by the terrorists. The difference here, though, is rather than the incredible story of heroism, valor, and courage as shown by the passengers in assaulting the hijackers and crashing the plane, the terrorists hold them off and maintain control of the aircraft.

The tiniest shift in detail makes the story different. Maybe the onrushing passengers fail to break into the cockpit. Maybe the amount of room, the adrenaline among the passengers compared to the terrorists, or the beverage cart just doesn’t work as expected, any of it and the terrorists keep flying the plane. Maybe someone slips and falls and the push against the cockpit door isn’t strong enough. Maybe Todd Beamer (of “let’s roll” fame) and others who led the counterassault on the terrorists aren’t even on the flight—they changed planes before boarding, had to go back home or to another office, or perhaps heavy traffic prevented them from reaching the terminal—and there isn’t any attempt made to retake control of the plane. These are frighteningly real possibilities.

For these or other reasons, there is no crater on a hill in western Pennsylvania. The hijacked plane continues to fly over the woods and valleys headed toward a grim destination. The terrorists are still in the cockpit.

The future now unfolding is full of deep water. Let’s dive in to find the depths. I’m thinking one of three things will likely happen. We’ll start with my “new city” options.

A new city becomes the focal point of the horror of 9-11. The best estimates are that the terrorists are flying toward either the White House or the US Capitol, both in Washington DC. As it happens, in western Pennsylvania where the crash occurred, downtown Washington DC is only twenty minutes away by flight time. Twenty minutes.

So, at most, history changes twenty minutes later. Most Senators and Representatives, their staffs, visitors, and many city residents will be dead or wounded. Hundreds of people die. Much or nearly all the Capitol building or White House will be devastated, scorched and smoldering from the explosion and the fires it ignited. Carnage is everywhere. Confusion and panic ensues, each given an additional fundamental electrical charge of having resulted from violence elsewhere in the city that has occurred just minutes earlier at the Pentagon.

The city will truly feel under attack. And somewhat different from New York City, Washington DC will be the site of attacks separated by a visible distance. The thrust of the day changes from New York City to Washington DC—Washington is the “new city” of focus for imagery, symbolism, and the creation of memories from 9-11.

Within Washington DC, multiple city blocks will divide the two attack sites. For an extended period lasting hours and perhaps days, there will be a sense of unprotection, of total vulnerability, substantially more so than actually occurred. We are laid bare, prone. At any moment an enemy may again strike. It is a new city besieged, a Confederate-style experience from southern cities and towns of the Civil War but updated with a religious enemy flying planes from the blue sky of late summer. It’s the war of a new and modern century.

With this “new city” focus on Washington DC, countermeasures may be harsher and more extreme than were done at the time. Greater effort goes toward evacuating more people from Washington DC and keeping them away for an extended period. The city will require tougher security to ensure control for days and weeks after the event. And within this lengthened time of re-control will be the growing shock, a reverberating shock, that history was not just made, it was erased. Opposites grow clearer: the remains of people are found while the traces of historic icons are not. Senators and representatives living moments ago are now as dead as Lincoln. In addition, historically significant items from within either the Capitol or the White House—irreplaceable as relics of the American experience—rise in number. More and more will be identified as burned and vaporized, turned to ash. The present bleeds into history and history vanishes into nothing.

These feelings of loss and vulnerability may drive a different American response higher up the hierarchy. Sure, perhaps nothing would have changed in how the United States responded on the level of the Presidency, the military, the national security apparatus, and more—but perhaps not. Odds are that a change does happen. And this points straight to a line: a stronger willingness to see and connect groups who perpetrated the acts of war to those involved in abetting the acts. The link between the terrorists and the people who helped them would darken to the point of stark clarity. Everyone would see them.

The question is whether these darker, more visible lines are traceable to substantially different responses beyond what was actually done in Afghanistan immediately and in Iraq later on. The two clearest possibilities would be stronger pressure on Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Pakistan, and more intense consideration of the use of tactical nuclear weapons.

I wonder, too, if this potential for still harsher, more severe responses is seen locally. Does the fact that the nation’s Capitol building or the White House is destroyed push more Americans to react aggressively in their communities? One of the remarkable and all-too-underappreciated aspects of the actual domestic response to 9-11 was the comparative absence of retaliation against Islamic-American citizens (note the word comparative). The likelihood of additional personal attacks on these Americans increases with more destruction of Washington DC.

One place where, in my view, there’s little or no change is internationally. In terms of how other nations would have responded, the change would have been negligible or imperceptible. Those who mourned with Americans would have done so anyway. Those who were gleeful at Americans’ misfortune would have remained in a similar state of joy.

There is a second alternative outcome from a change in the events on Flight 93. I’ll call this the “under-20” outcome. I’m referring to the course of history if the airplane doesn’t slam into the Capitol building or the White House within twenty minutes but is instead shot down by American fighter pilots from the US Air Force. They would have received orders to destroy the airliner as it entered the immediate airspace of Washington DC. The shift in history would have commenced in fewer than the twenty minutes of flight time from western Pennsylvania to downtown Washington. Under twenty.

For me, the effects from this alternative rapidly flow toward another direction. Do you recall—and I’m sure you do vividly—the divisive nature of the Iraq War? OK, take that memory and jump it backward to September 12, 2001, maybe even the afternoon and night of September 11. I’m referring to what I think would have been the tortuous debate about the necessity of having shot down the passenger plane. The quarrel would have been loud, long, and poisonous. Indeed, as I write this, I’m convinced it would have been worse than the division over Iraq because the shoot-down would have been the one and only major historical example since 1865 of Americans killing Americans in a war-like moment.

Someone can argue the opposite, I suppose, saying the effect would have been to increase that much more the unity and patriotism of the American people after the event. I really don’t think so. There is a substantial group of citizens—less than a majority but still large in sound and tone—that resents the American military and is oriented to believing the worst about American armed forces. A shoot-down would have provoked them like nothing else. Their outcries would have been deafening.

I suggest that the Iraq War would still have happened. But a change would have occurred—the intensity of domestic opposition would have quadrupled because of the shoot-down. The anti-war movement would have repeated much of the Vietnam era protests by including bitter criticism of the US military in addition to their actual opposition to President Bush’s conduct of the war itself. As things actually turned out, the opposition focused mostly on Bush and his top-level officials. In the “under 20” option, I think the opposition would have mushroomed far beyond this to include ordinary Americans in military uniform. You could have kissed goodbye any chance of getting Democratic votes in a congressional authorization of war in Iraq.

And within less than a year, in the presidential election campaign of 2004, John Kerry’s emergence as the Democratic nominee would have built more strongly on his anti-military stances in the early 1970s and the Vietnam War. And that takes us miles ahead of the Swift-Boaters who figured into the 2004 campaign. More Americans, following the momentum of the “under 20” option, would have been willing to discuss and embrace anti-military feelings in that campaign.

In addition, even before we get to Iraq or the election, so deep would have been the reverberations that it’s entirely possible the war in Afghanistan would have been altered. The Bush Administration would have encountered a much more constrained and restricted field of options and choices in war strategy and war fighting than it did.

In my “under 20” option, the near-certain casualty of this course of history would have been unity. We look back now and recall the nation’s unity with pride and not a little sadness for its rarity. Well, the logic of the “under 20” option points directly to unity having never happened at all after 9-11. Only an intervening event could have jolted the nation onto a path of unity. And if I’m right or even partly so, I (and maybe you) shudder at the thought of where national disunity would be in 2012 and beyond. Hard to realize it but we really look unified by comparison to the effects of the “under 20.”

There’s a third possibility that blends my first two. I’ll credit Steve Reed for suggesting this to me. Steve is one of my alumni, a veteran of several of my sessions at Historical Solutions LLC.

Here’s the blended third. The US Air Force scrambles jets and orders the shoot-down…but the pilot can’t bring himself to push the button. Wow: very, very possible in the world of people.

If this third way is taken, I believe we’d never be informed of the failure to shoot. It would be kept secret. Only a handful of military officers and political leaders would ever know, except for the pilot. As for him, I’d bet the psychological toll would defy measure. For that person and also for many others, life would never be the same again. We would loop back to the effects I outlined above for the second completed attack on Washington DC.

It’s a tribute to the heroism and courage of the forty passengers on Flight 93 that none of these things happened. They were the militia men of April 19, 1775, standing on Lexington Green and near Concord Bridge. The ground on which they stood was the floor of a flying passenger plane. Their resolve was for the protection of revered national treasures. Theirs was a battle fought to save independence. The passengers of 93 are the minute men and minute women of the 21st century. Salute them.

This is a sobering, yet inspirational path of thought. I’m compelled to share a broader story with you on the leadership experience of Flight 93. If you’re interested, I’ll be designing a leadership module based on the history of Flight 93.