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The lesson of United 93

Posted by Richard on May 18, 2006

Ilya Somin at The Volokh Conspiracy noticed a Michael Kinsley column suggesting that the government, at least, hasn’t learned the lesson of United Flight 93. Kinsley argued that the feds are still officially telling us to remain calm in an emergency and do what we’re told — to not do what the heroes of United 93 did:

For a while after 9/11 there was talk of changing the official policy regarding hijackings and to start encouraging the passengers to whack the hijackers with their pillows, and so on. … But today, airline passengers are still told at the start of every flight that in an emergency they should remain calm and follow instructions from anyone in a uniform…

Poking around the Web, I stumbled across the official "Hijacking Survival Guidelines" for employees of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. They say, "Stay calm and encourage others around you to do the same. Do not challenge the hijackers physically or verbally. Comply with their instructions. Do not struggle…."

Somin said the official advice no longer mattered, but was bothered by it nonetheless:

Should another hijacking occur, I think many passengers are likely to resist the terrorists regardless of what government bureaucrats might say. Flight 93 has entered the popular consciousness in a much more powerful way than any government-issued instructions could. Still, it is deeply troubling that the homeland security bureaucracy can’t get this relatively simple issue right. If they can’t even learn the most obvious lessons of the last major terrorist attack, I highly doubt that they can effectively prepare for the next one. 

I think Kinsley set up a straw man. The standard flight attendants’ emergency spiel isn’t about hijackings, it’s about depressurization, water landings, and exiting the cabin. And Kinsley failed to note the following disclaimer in that document from the USDA site that he quoted (emphasis added):

The guidance below focuses on avoiding violence and achieving a peaceful resolution to a hijacking. This guidance was developed prior to September 11, 2001 when two hijacked airliners were flown into the World Trade Center and one into the Pentagon. Since then, there has been considerable public discussion of a more active and aggressive reaction to the initial announcement that a plane is being hijacked. As of this writing, the U.S. Government has not developed new guidelines for how to react to a hijacking. The appropriate reaction may depend upon the presumed purpose of the hijacking — the hijackers’ goal a suicide mission to use the airplane itself as a bomb, take hostages to gain publicity for a political movement, or a simple desire to escape to another country.

I couldn’t find a revision date. BTW, it’s not a USDA document. It’s part of an antiterrorism training module created by the Dept. of Defense for military and civilian employees and contractors who travel frequently on government business. I assume these sorts of training modules are probably widely shared among agencies.

Nonetheless, I recommend Kinsley’s column, which discussed some important issues — courage and cowardice, obedience and defiance — and acknowledged that some questions are much easier to answer in retrospect:

It is the nature of authorities to assert authority, and its hard to imagine officials of anything urging people to pay no attention to official instructions. But there is also some logic here. The policies followed by police and fire officials at the World Trade Center (at the cost of their own lives as well as others’) seem very wrong in hindsight. But these rules themselves were the product of hindsight. During the first World Trade Center bombing, back in 1993, rescue attempts and fire control were frustrated by the anarchy of thousands fleeing unnecessarily down narrow emergency stairs. Emergency planners are like generals—always fighting the last war. But what other choice do they have? Let he who anticipated that the next four hijacked planes would be pointed at major office buildings cast the first stone.

With convenient symmetry, it also seems to be the nature of most people, most of the time, to obey authority. The famous Stanley Milgram experiments at Yale in 1961 demonstrated that it is frighteningly easy to induce ordinary people—good people—to inflict pain on others, when ordered to do so by some authority figure. Sept. 11 demonstrated that most people will sit tight and obey orders even unto their own deaths. The defiance of authority is a big reason the United 93 story is so thrilling. This was heroism, American-style. Dissing the Man on your way out the door. These folks were cowboys. John Wayne and Clint Eastwood don’t have time for the rules, and neither did they.

Yep, "heroism, American-style" and "cowboys" — that’s the story of United 93. Kinsley got that part right.

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2 Responses to “The lesson of United 93”

  1. RS said

    That some Flight 93 passengers “fought like warrior poets” is encouraging for our future. For surely “we the people” are able (but are we willing?) to storm the bridge of the ship of state, and seize the helm from postmodernist hijackers. See

  2. april said

    Saw the movie. It was sad, and stunning. It made me proud to be of this soil, and that stock. It firmed my resolve. God Bless America. RS, why do liberals have to make EVERYTHING about them? You couldn’t just comment on the movie, could you? Because it’s always about your future plans, your agenda. “Storm the…ship of state”? Yeah, moron, why don’t you just do that? Bring a videocamera, too, I’d love to see that…that is, if Springer is a rerun. Freakin’ moron. RS, move to Cuba, I’m sure it’s much better there, or France, then you could have cheese with your whine.

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