40 Americans

It was one of those morning flights. Routine. The ETD went up on the computer screens along with all the others.

. . .

The airport didn't have a familiar name like LaGuardia or Kennedy, Logan or O'Hare, but was lesser-known Newark. Just a footnote to New York, like so much of grimy North Jersey across the Hudson.

. . .

The passengers on United Flight 93, the regularly scheduled morning flight from Newark to San Francisco, drifted by or dropped out or rushed over at their own pace, each in their own state of composure or hurry.

. . .

Some called home, others the office. Many were already entering that altered state of consciousness that airline passengers will slip into once they've checked their baggage, and have nothing to do but wait, read their book, get a cup of coffee, turn on their laptop. ... Yes, routine.

. . .

From here on in, they could leave the driving -- or rather flying -- to others. To the pilots, flight attendants, ground crew, air traffic controllers. ... They were in that strange country called In Transit, or call it life in pause.

All in all, it can be a nice break, air travel, once you're past the check-in hassle and have given yourself time to relax. If you're not the too-active type with something always to do.

. . .

Unlike the flight attendants. They have check-lists to go over and a host of other details to tend to. One of them, CeeCee Lyles, still had time to call her husband, which she did several times a day. They were that kind of couple. A cop, he was just finishing a quiet overnight shift as a patrolman in Fort Myers, Fla., when CeeCee phoned him as she was getting aboard the flight attendants' shuttle to the airport, telling him which bills to be sure to pay, what was on his Honey-Do list that day, that kind of domestic detail.

When she got to the airport, she called again. There didn't seem to be too many passengers on the flight list for United 93, she told him. "I've got an easy day," she said.

. . .

The crew was well-trained, their instructions in case of an emergency spelled out long ago: If they found themselves in the middle of a hijacking, they were to Stay Calm and phone the cockpit, using an innocuous word like "trip" to alert the pilots, as in "I need to talk to you about the trip." The crew's order of priorities in such a case was clear: Take care of yourself and the passengers. Get the plane down without further incident. Do whatever the hijackers wanted. Don't try to be a hero.

The flight attendant's manual was quite specific on that point: "Be persuasive to stay alive. Be released or escape. Delay. Engage in comfortable behavior. Be yourself. Maintain a professional role...." This manual was a step-by-step guide to passivity. Everything had been anticipated. Almost.

When it happened, word got out phone call by phone call. Fred Fiumano, who ran Fred's Auto Repair in Queens, picked up the phone to find an old friend, Marion Britton, on the line. She was sobbing. Her flight had been hijacked, she told him, and two people aboard had already been killed. "They slit their throats." It's one of the details that stays in your mind, and gut, even a dozen years later.

It's something else to remember if and when the trials begin for some of our cosseted guests at Guantanamo, with their regular exercise periods, certified diets, prayer breaks ... all of them treated like Prisoners of War even if they're not. Even if they're illegal combatants. The kind who don't wear the uniform of the enemy, if it has one, and who slit women's throats with box cutters. Oh, brave jihadi!

The cowardice, the bloodthirstiness, the death worship of these fanatics ... all of those provide another reason to vow never to imitate them, but to do justice without a trace of vengeance, by the book, without passion or malice. Cold, correct, legal. For we are Americans, and have a civilization to defend, not dishonor.

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