Remembering the First Blow Against al Qaeda

May 11, 2011

It was a fitting end: The brutal terrorist who aspired to create an Islamic caliphate that stretched from the Straits of Malacca to Gibraltar was found hiding in a walled compound, isolated and reduced to communicating in fitful spurts by courier. It was the identity of a courier—patiently traced by intelligence professionals for four years—that eventually brought Navy SEALs to Osama bin Laden's doorstep.

The founder of al Qaeda received what he had been promised. "Whether we bring our enemies to justice or bring justice to our enemies, justice will be done," President George W. Bush said on Sept. 20, 2001. A decade later his successor, having made a wise and politically gutsy decision to put the U.S. military on the ground to confront bin Laden face to face, was able to announce that justice had indeed been done. 

It is fitting today that we recall what was, in retrospect, the first victory in the war on terrorism. By doing so, we can recognize a 9/11 obligation that every American can help fulfill. 

Ten years before highly trained Navy SEALs stormed bin Laden's compound, 40 ordinary people went into combat. They died in a field in Somerset County, Pa., having sacrificed their lives so other Americans might live. They likely prevented the destruction of the United States Capitol or the White House.

United Flight 93's saga has been told many times and even commemorated in a movie. Traveling from Newark to San Francisco, a handful of men and women showed extraordinary courage and grace under pressure, storming the cockpit of their plane after it had been hijacked.

Their bravery and sacrifice will be honored at the Flight 93 National Memorial in Somerset County. The center of the national park will be the plane's impact site, "Sacred Ground."

And sacred it is. I visited this lovely, gently sloping meadow shortly after the 9/11 attacks, when President and Mrs. Bush met with the families of those killed. It was hard to think of such a beautiful field being the scene of such destruction. The plane hit the ground at 563 miles per hour, exploding in a shower of metal and flame.

Each passenger and crew member will be memorialized in a grove of 40 trees that ring a 150-acre "Field of Honor" next to the crash site. A visitors center with exhibits and programming will explore the legacy of United Flight 93.

This is the only 9/11 memorial that is a national park and a private-public partnership. The federal and state governments have given $31 million, while a fundraising effort spearheaded by Outback Steakhouse chairman Chris Sullivan, Gen. Tommy Franks and former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge has raised $23 million so far from private donors.

Nearly $15 million remains to be raised before the memorial's dedication this September. Every American can help by going to and making a contribution.

Last Thursday, President Barack Obama visited the Pentagon and Ground Zero to honor the Americans who died in the attacks. In doing so he was fulfilling one of a president's most important roles: to pay his respects to those worthy of our honor and gratitude and, in the process, to bind up some of the remaining wounds from that awful day. I only wish Mr. Obama had added one more stop to his itinerary—the green field in south central Pennsylvania where Americans struck the first blow against al Qaeda.

The passengers on Flight 93 were not trained in the art of war like the skilled operators of SEAL Team 6. The uniforms of the pilots and attendants were not like those of the chopper crews who dropped from the dark sky above Abbottabad. But in a powerful way, the people on Flight 93 too were warriors.

At 9:58 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001, Todd Beamer asked his fellow passengers and crew, "Are you guys ready? Okay. Let's roll!" They then stormed the cockpit. They were ready to give their lives and did. Nothing will bring them back or fill the void left in the hearts of their families. But America can honor them by finishing the job on the Flight 93 National Memorial.

This article originally appeared on on Wednesday, May 11, 2011.

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