Many Americans are still too shocked and too saddened by the events of September 11, 2001, to want to relive that infamous day. They do not want to board United Airlines Flight 93 in Newark and ride a doomed plane. We sympathize with their feelings. Why travel back in time to be present with those who died and others on the ground whose lives were shattered that morning? Why, we thought as we entered the movie theater, would anyone willingly sign on for this excruciating experience?
For millions of other Americans, this film will be akin to stopping on the highway where there has been a terrible wreck and bodies are strewn around in plain sight. Or turning on the television to see the devastation caused by a bombing or a hurricane or a tornado. What happened? What did the people do? What were those who died thinking in the last moments? We humans are curious about disaster and death. Stated more strongly, we are drawn to it as if by immersing ourselves in it vicariously, we can somehow avoid it directly.
Spiritual teachers tell us that we all have these tendencies to submit to fear and terror and despair — and to have the companion reactions of hate and revenge and violence. Knowing that these seeds are within us, we need not also water them. Buddhist peacemaker Thich Nhat Hanh put it this way in Living Buddha, Living Christ:
"We must be careful to avoid ingesting toxins in the form of violent TV programs, video games, movies, magazines, and books. When we watch that kind of violence, we water our own negative seeds, or tendencies, and eventually we will think and act out of those seeds."
We can't and shouldn't deny that such things happen; the world is not all sweetness and light. But we don't have to let them overwhelm our hearts and souls with negativity. We can counter terror with empathy and compassion.
We took this perspective with us to the screening of United 93. Would the film inflame the feelings of anger and hatred against Muslims that have plagued the country since 9/11? Would it fuel the engines of patriotism that have led to blind acceptance of a pre-emptive war and a tolerance of torture? Or would it help us connect with the victims of terror here and elsewhere? Would it give us a sense of what it is like to face death directly?
Thanks to the skill and sensitivity of writer and director Paul Greengrass (Bloody Sunday), this daring film eschews violence and focuses instead on the massive bewilderment of those aboard United 93 and the air traffic controllers, military personnel, and government officials on the ground. The hijackings caught the country by surprise. The film reveals the many mysteries that still surround the terrorist attacks. The director doesn't try to explain it or make a political statement. He doesn't manipulate or exploit our emotions. He just puts us there. It's up to us to determine our reactions. Here is ours.
United 93: A Meditation
In their hotel, four seemingly devout
Muslim men recite the Qur'an
and perform the morning prayer.
Arriving at Newark airport, they prepare
to board United Airlines Flight 93.
In their faces, we see both
commitment and fear.
Our hearts go out to them and to all
those who are so blinded by hatred
that they cannot recognize the
divinity that resides in every person
regardless of country or creed.
We meet the two pilots and learn
the copilot has children and
and the captain is looking forward
to a trip to London with his wife.
We know already that they will
never see their loved ones again,
and our hearts go out to them
in their innocence.
We share the confusion of the
air controller who hears a strange
transmission from a plane he is
monitoring and then watches as
its signal disappears from his screen.
We share the anxiety of the commander
at the Northeastern Air Defense Sector
as he tries to get authority for decisions
in a situation that has no precedent.
Our hearts go out to them
in their not knowing.
We watch as the terrorists take over
United 93, two entering the cockpit
and two others holding the passengers
at bay with a homemade bomb.
We shudder as one of the terrorists
invokes the name of God as he slits
the throat of a stewardess.
We share the horror of another
stewardess, who while checking on
a slain passenger also sees
the dead bodies of the pilots.
Our hearts go out to these victims
and to those discovering their deaths.
At Newark, the air controllers notice
smoke from the north tower of
the World Trade Center and then see
a plane hit the south tower.
Our hearts go out to them during
these moments of shock and disbelief.
At the Federal Aviation Administration
headquarters, what's going on in
New York is displayed on a large
television screen as the officials
scramble for information and a plan.
Our hearts go out to them during
these moments of bewilderment.
The passengers on United 93 now
begin to phone their loved ones and
learn from them about planes
hitting the World Trade Center and
the Pentagon. One man concludes
that their flight is a suicide mission.
Our hearts go out to them as they
make last calls to their families.
Our hearts go out to the woman
who tells a family member the
number of a safe where her will is kept.
Our hearts go out to the young girl,
given the phone by her seatmate,
who says a tearful goodbye.
Our hearts go out to the stewardess
who promises during her call that
she will never fly again.
Our hearts go out to all these
terrified people whose bodies are shaking
with fear and grief and sadness.
Our hearts go out to the men
who decide they must act before
they all die, as they plan
how to get the terrorists' bomb,
storm the cockpit, and fly the plane.
Our hearts go out to everyone
aboard United 93 as we watch the
last-minute chaos and see through
the cockpit window the approaching
grave of a Pennsylvania field.
It will be easy for those who hate
terrorists — hate the very fact
that terrorism exists — to hate
back after this shattering experience.
But instead they could see United 93
as a chance to practice empathy
and not hostility.
It will be easy for those who distrust
government and military leaders
to ridicule the staggering incompetence
of sending up unarmed planes flying
in the wrong direction and the total
lack of communication from the President.
But instead they could set aside politics
and practice empathy for these leaders'
inability to control the events.
United 93 brings us all together
and we see ourselves in the fear,
the frustration, the shock, and
the terror of a situation when
no one knew what was happening.
To surrender to this story
is to confront our own fears,
frustrations, shock, and terror.
To surrender to this story
is to acknowledge that there
are times when we do not know
and do not control our fates.
To surrender to this story is
to embrace the human experience.
Our hearts go out to our brothers
and sisters everywhere who are
facing incomprehensible events.
May we all find peace.
Special DVD features include a feature commentary with Director Paul Greengrass, "United 93: The Families and the Film," and Memorial Pages.