We told ourselves we would never forget. We put bumper stickers bearing that slogan on our cars, we hung flags in front of our homes, and we repeated the names, deeds, and last words of the day’s heroes. We read books and watched movies about what happened. We gave the impression of a people grimly determined, serious, and dedicated.
Our determination was not only to find and bring justice to the people who had committed the deadliest terrorist attack on American soil. It was also to place the memory of that day into the national pantheon, to memorialize its heroes for all time, and to protect ourselves against such threats in the future.
Alas, it was mostly a façade. A façade that hid the real culprit that enabled the 9/11 attacks and which bedevils the country to this day: America’s broken immigration system. Our lack of courage and willingness to be distracted from addressing the root causes of 9/11 was a betrayal of the fighting spirit of the heroes of Flight 93.
We quickly went back to our lives in the aftermath of the attacks, telling ourselves it was better to move on. We beat the terrorists by refusing to allow them to change us, we told ourselves. They were attacking who we are, and so our best response was to just continuing being who we are.
President George W. Bush endorsed this mindset when he told us our counterattack should be to “go shopping” and to “get down to Disney World.” One of the post-9/11 memories that carved itself deeply into my mind is a T-shirt a woman wore during a dedication ceremony at a Pennsylvania memorial for the United Flight 93 crash. On the shirt, scrawled in Sharpie, was the message: “No terrorist is gonna mess with my vacation.” A list of tourist locations—Cancún, Saint Thomas—followed.
above: the crater and debris field of the remains of United Flight 93 in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, shortly after the crash on September 11, 2001 (photo by Mark Stahl / Library of Congress)
According to this worldview, consumerism—our materialist freedom to earn money and spend it—was the terrorists’ target on 9/11. Thus, increasing our spending and focusing on ownership of material goods showed how committed we were to American identity. If American citizens’ collective memory of 9/11 is simply about holding up our birthright to shopping malls and tourist vacations, it would perhaps be better to forget it.
The American federal government was determined to remember the attacks on America in another way: as a justification for the irrational and unwinnable “War on Terror.” This meant prolonged, costly, and massively destructive military interventions in numerous countries, most of which had no demonstrable connection to the 9/11 attacks. America might have carefully contemplated how much its imperial projects abroad contributed to the growth of the Muslim fanaticism that produced 9/11. Giving vent to justifiable fury was easier.
Beyond our pre-2001 military missteps in the Middle East, there is another factually grounded way to conceive of 9/11 as significantly enabled by Americans. Our immigration policy has been deeply misguided since the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. It passed Congress in a wave of misrepresentations about its intent and its probable consequences, and massively increased immigration from parts of the world which were culturally light-years apart from us.
The failure of the 1965 Immigration Act was written all over the smoking ruins of 9/11, yet there has been no concentrated public reflection on this in the 20 years since.
above: four of the September 11 hijackers (Federal Bureau of Investigation)
Of the 19 foreign visitors who carried out the four hijackings that day, nearly a third were in overstay status, some for as many as nine months. None of these violations were detected or investigated. The terrorist pilot of Flight 93, Ziad Jarrah, arrived in the U.S. on a tourist visa and violated his visa terms by enrolling in a flight school. He subsequently left and reentered the country three times without being detected.
Two other terrorist pilots—the operation’s leader, Mohamed Atta, and Marwan al-Shehhi—also entered on tourist visas, then applied to change their status so they could attend flight school, which was permitted. Both overstayed the term of the original visas, then left the country and attempted to reenter while the status change was still in process. Despite the violation of the terms of their visas, they were readmitted. Atta was pulled over in a traffic stop while there was a warrant for his arrest related to an expired driver’s license, but he was not detained because there was no national coordination of databases tracking immigrants with such warrants.
The fourth terrorist pilot, Hani Hanjour, came to the U.S. on a student visa, but never showed up at the school the terms of his visa required him to attend. This went completely undetected until post-9/11 investigation.
Four terrorist passports were recovered after the attacks, and two showed obvious evidence of doctoring. Most of the terrorists acquired their passports in Saudi Arabia, and errors and outright criminal fraud were involved in many of those processes. Three of the hijackers made obviously false statements on their applications that went undetected. At least two obtained their passports illegitimately with the help of family members working for the passport office.
Incredibly, before 9/11, the U.S. did not routinely interview Saudi Arabian passport applicants or collect their fingerprints. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, named in the 9/11 Commission Report as the principal architect of the attacks—who is somehow still awaiting a trial date—received a fraudulent passport in Saudi Arabia under a pseudonym, though he was neither a Saudi citizen nor in the country at the time the passport was issued.
above: Khalid Sheikh Mohammed upon his capture in March 2003 (Wikimedia Commons)
In a healthy culture with a robust interest in its own self-preservation, one would imagine a horror like 9/11 as an excellent opportunity to rethink the risibly porous and ill-conceived immigration policy devised in 1965, especially as it facilitated easy entry into the country by individuals from cultures heavily influenced by terrorist ideologies. Tepid attempts were initially made to intensify the screening of such individuals seeking entry into the U.S., but they quickly proved toothless after they were subjected to legal challenges. Twenty years later, American establishment elites left and right remain united in championing the open immigration processes that brought Mohamed Atta and his associates so effortlessly into our midst.
Since 2001, the United States has astonishingly doubled down on the 1965 policy, steadily increasing the flow of immigrants from vastly different cultures, including those with significant adherence to Islamist values. This pattern was briefly and imperfectly challenged under the Trump administration, but the Biden-Harris administration is already delivering on its promise to reopen the floodgates. Continuing to pour in are immigrants and refugees who adhere not to American traditions, but to worldviews that make integration unlikely, and political and cultural fracture a near certainty.
In "The Flight 93 Election," an essay written in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, author Michael Anton bolstered the rhetorical parallel of the election to Flight 93. He suggested we should integrate this 9/11 incident into our contemporary political consciousness in a way that openly acknowledged the immigration disaster that made it possible. Anton’s vision was provocative: the plane (i.e. America) was about to be flown into the ground, and concerned passengers (i.e. American citizens) had to risk everything by taking control from the pilots to prevent the catastrophe.
While the essay understated the symbolic parallels between Flight 93 and U.S. demographic change caused by post-1965 immigration, it did describe three reasons why conservatives would face little chance of political success in the wake of a Hillary Clinton presidency. The most important of these, Anton explained, was “the ceaseless importation of Third World foreigners with no tradition of, taste for, or experience in liberty.”
The skewing of the population toward leftist multiculturalism and away from traditional American cultural values is the inevitable consequence of such ceaseless immigration. The left, Anton argued, want more such people in the country because they often share their progressive politics, while their growing numbers offer the left the promise of electoral invincibility. The cheap and docile labor of the immigrant class is also attractive to our ruling elites.
Many self-styled conservatives have legitimate fears of being canceled as racists if they oppose America’s current immigration policies. Some are only too happy to pursue their own personal gain by virtue-signaling to progressives that they are on the right side of history on this aspect of the revolutionary transformation of American culture that occurred starting in the 1960s.
Anton’s vision in “The Flight 93 Election” was narrowly focused on the political events of the moment in the fall of 2016. But the metaphor of Flight 93 has a deeper utility that can be mobilized and sustained on the right well beyond a single election. It must center on an unblinking understanding that the plane—that is, historical America—is indeed heading toward catastrophe at high speed. Its flight plan was prepared many decades ago by people who didn't need a visa to arrive here. These people so despise everyday Americans—whose attitudes are insufficiently compliant with the interests of their rulers—that they welcome any cataclysm that promises to bring the targets of their hatred even lower.
above: Tom Burnett, Jr., (left) and Todd Beamer (right), passengers who fought their hijackers and died in the crash of United Flight 93 (Wikimedia Commons)
The heroic, death-defying passengers of Flight 93 are the fitting emblem of such a movement, and it is a demoralizing indication of the utter disarray and lack of seriousness on the American right that so very little has been done to thus mobilize them. The acts of heroes who perish in service of their nation and their fellow citizens have a worthy place in mythologies of civil religions. The deeds of the passengers of United Flight 93 cried out for such inclusion by the bare facts of what they did.
But there was and is much more in the story of Flight 93 that can be put to use in a conservative, counterrevolutionary mythology. In the wake of Sept. 11 we learned that the two leaders of the effort to take back Flight 93 were Tom Burnett, Jr., and Todd Beamer. Both were conservative Christians with long résumés of fierce faith, leadership, and physical courage, as well as commitment to family and American cultural tradition—these facts were revealed in biographical books written by their wives.
above: the cover of Deena Burnett’s 2006 book Fighting Back
Fighting Back: Living Life Beyond Ourselves is the inspiring account of Burnett’s life penned by his wife Deena, which offers an assertive traditionalist criticism of the trajectory of the country. She calls for a broader cultural response by conservatives to fight against the progressive leftist forces that are dismantling the core of American society and culture. Her book was almost wholly ignored by the mainstream press and punditry when it appeared in 2006. It is infinitely more shocking and disappointing that so few conservatives read the book and put it to the political use for which it was so eminently suited.
The Flight 93 counterrevolutionaries who attempted to wrest back control of the plane were the epitome of American fearlessness and optimism. They were not engaged in a suicide mission—they had found an experienced pilot among their numbers and were determined to get their man in the cockpit to safely land it.
Burnett told his wife, with matter-of-fact confidence, “It’s up to us.” When she asked what he wanted her to do, he responded: “Deena, just pray.…Don’t worry, we’re going to do something.”
Deena Burnett with daughter Madison Burnett during the second annual Tom Burnett Jr. Fundraiser at the Blackhawk Country Club in Danville, CA., on August 3, 2004 (Contra Costa Times/Susan Tripp Pollard)
Admirable efforts were made to commemorate these heroes. A former Catholic priest, the late Alphonse Mascherino, spent a decade at a chapel near the crash site reminding visitors of the importance of these heroes and speaking to the need of both a religious and a civil revival in the country.
Both, however, will require an expanded vision as to who was responsible for what was done to us, and what needs to be accomplished to make good on their effort. Military actions in faraway places will only produce more American dead. The struggle is first and foremost here. If we lose at home, it does not matter much what goes on abroad.
We are now at such a distance from 9/11 that the first-year students I see this fall semester will nearly all have been born at least a year after that day in September 2001. Perhaps enough time has passed that a critical mass of Americans is finally ready to accept the hard truths many Chronicles readers have long known. Americans did not carry out the 9/11 attacks, but our leaders and the policies they enacted created the conditions that made those attacks likely. Two decades later, we collectively have done next to nothing to change those conditions. Shame on us all.