Passengers aboard a wide-body jet sit awaiting their arrival to an American city. Suddenly, one passenger — a son of a prosperous Nigerian family-turned-Islamic terrorist — attempts a suicide bombing by detonating the chemical bomb he managed to sneak through airport security. But the passengers, including a guy heading out to visit his relatives, managed to subdue the menace.
As you know by now, this happened last week aboard Northwest Airlines Flight 253, when Dutch tourist Jasper Schuringa and his fellow passengers took down banker’s son Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab and kept him handcuffed until the Airbus jet landed at Detroit International Airport. But it echoes what medical device executive Thomas Burnett Jr. and three other passengers did eight years ago when they gave their lives to thwart an attempt by four al-Qaeda terrorists to crash United Flight 93 into Washington, D.C. — and averted an even greater death toll arising from the September 11 massacres.
And both events prove once again that government alone cannot ensure security and freedom for Americans or citizens in other countries. Ultimately, it depends on ordinary people to rise to an occasion, even at the expense of their own lives.
Certainly the incident is just another reminder that the approach to airport security and anti-terrorism undertaken by the Bush and Obama administrations has been anything but a success. Although American lives haven’t been lost to suicide hijackings since September 11, 2001, this has little to do with the restrictions on large lotion bottles and random searches undertaken by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Nine-eleven, after all, was a once-in-the-lifetime confluence of opportunistic planning by Osama bin Laden, Mohamed Atta and Zacarias Moussaoui — and the utter failure of imagination by U.S. and foreign intelligence.
But, as proven by Hamas during the Palestinian Intifada against Israel, one-man suicide bombings are always possible and, in fact, are likely when governments fail in surveillance. Such is exemplified by Flight 253. American, Dutch and Yemeni officials spar over who is accountable for the incident, even as evidence suggests that all three are to blame. Even President Barack Obama admitted his outrage at such “human and systemic failures” as the lack of air marshals on the flight — even though Amsterdam has become increasingly notorious for being a transfer point for Koran-touting hypocrites misinterpreting scripture to justify murder.
But Flight 253 also proves that muscle-bound superheroes found in The Iliad and the Terminator series are little more than mythology. As psychologist Philip Zimbardo declares, anyone can be a hero when the time calls for it. This is especially true when tyranny puts our liberties at stake. The leading lights of freedom fights such as the Revolutionary War, the abolitionist movement, and the Cold War weren’t patricians, but New England blacksmiths, ex-slaves, and dock workers living anonymously before duty called them to defend their fellow men and women.
Schuringa and his fellow passengers, happily in one piece, are in the same pantheon as these ordinary people. They also find themselves in good company with the otherwise-anonymous men from the more-immediate past: The heroes of Flight 93, who stopped one of the four teams of al Qaeda terrorists from fulfilling their death plot.
These weren’t men of action. Save for being the U.S. National Collegiate Judo champion back in his days attending the University of Rochester, Jeremy Logan Glick spent most of his life toiling as an executive at a Silicon Valley consultancy. Mark Bingham was a public relations executive who played in rugby tournaments in his spare time. Todd Beamer, whose battle cry “Let’s roll” is now as much a call to heroism as the Marine Corps “Semper Fi,” was a father of two with a daughter on the way.
Then there was Thomas Burnett Jr., whom this writer had met five days before 9/11 during one of the many roadshows he made as chief operating officer of Thoratec, a maker of ventricular aid devices. An affable Bloomington, Minn., native, Burnett didn’t exactly stand out as the hero he became; he spent most of his time answering questions about corporate financials, explaining why Thoratec was the standout firm in its market sector, and — after I had mentioned that I should clean my hands before touching one of the devices — quipping that he’d just clean it off and place it into a patient anyway.
After the 30 minute meeting, Burnett flew off to Minneapolis, then to Edison, N.J., before switching his flight that Sept. 11, for the earlier Flight 93 just so he could get home to his wife and three children. By the time it crashed into a field in Stonycreek Township, Penn., Burnett, along with Glick, Bingham and Beamer, had said good-bye to their families and struck a blow against terror.
As David Bowie would sing, we can all be heroes for just one day. For the sake of preserving liberty and freedom, this isn’t an option.
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