I’ve only cried once while conducting a news interview.
It was nearly 20 years ago at the National Press Building in Washington, D.C. at an event calling for a memorial to be built in Shanksville, Pennsylvania to commemorate the passengers of Flight 93. Flight 93, many of you will remember, was flying from Newark to San Francisco on Sept. 11, 2001, when four hijackers turned the plane around. Their intention was apparently to crash the Boeing 757 into the U.S. Capitol, adding to the carnage which had just engulfed the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. A small band of passengers, after learning that three other planes had crashed that morning, decided to fight back.
Among them was Mark Bingham, a 6-foot-4-inch former rugby star at Los Gatos High School and UC Berkeley, who was returning to the Bay Area for a wedding. With the memorable words, “Let’s roll,’’ the passengers charged the hijackers with a food cart, unleashing a furious attack to gain control of the cockpit. The ensuing crash, 150 miles west of D.C., may have saved thousands of lives.
Bingham’s mother, Mary Hoagland, was at the Press Club event. Bingham had called his mother from the plane to tell her he loved her. She initially told him to sit down, so as not to draw attention to himself before alerting him to what was unfolding in New York. Describing her visit to the proposed memorial in the pastoral Pennsylvania countryside, she remarked: “There could not be a more beautiful place for a more ugly thing to have happened.’’
I approached Hoagland after the event to ask a few questions and began by thanking her for her son’s heroism, which came from the bottom of my heart. I had been two blocks from the U.S. Capitol at the very moment the hijackers intended to strike.
“Thank you for your son…,’’ I began as my emotions swelled. I had two sons of my own, at the time just 3 and 6 years old. Though Hoagland had endured the agony of her son’s death for weeks, it was at that moment that the magnitude of her loss overtook me.
I started to ask a question and couldn’t go on. My eyes filled with tears as I imagined the unbearable pain a mother must endure when a child is taken away. I had planned to ask her what her son would have thought of a memorial, but the words could not overcome the tears. I managed meekly to tell her how grateful I was for her son’s sacrifice before walking away to spare her the burden of my emotional breakdown.
Hoagland’s pain was not isolated. There were 43 other passengers on Flight 93, all dead. There were three other planes with 221 more people — sons, daughters, mothers, fathers — who died in fiery explosions. Another 2,606 died in the World Trade Center, 125 at the Pentagon and tens of thousands who were forever scarred, physically and emotionally.
It is important to recall those emotions as the nation reflects on the 20-year anniversary of the day which changed America’s understanding of the world. The nation’s response to the attack has been fateful. More than 7,000 service members have been killed in post 9/11 war operations, according to Brown University’s Watson Institute of International and Public Affairs. Another 30,000 have committed suicide. The death toll among Afghans and Iraqis is many times higher. All of us have endured burdensome and costly security measures at airports and large public gatherings.
Whether we are in a better place now because of those sacrifices is something we will never know. But we should not forget the emotions that took us to this place. On Sept. 10, 2001, the U.S. economy was booming, Nancy Pelosi was poised to become the first female Whip and the Giants were 16 games over .500. The globe’s violent struggles were mostly beyond our borders and to many Americans, could be safely ignored.
Sept. 11 shattered that illusion. Many cried. Others raged. Some fought.
We cannot evaluate those responses without recalling the passions that prompted them. A poll conducted just after the attacks found more than three quarters of Americans supported military action against the terrorist even if it meant “thousands of U.S. casualties.’’ There is little evidence to suggest that our response to a similar attack today would be much different.
Sept. 11 revealed a terrible darkness in the human character. It also revealed the selfless instincts of heroes like Bingham.
Alice Hoagland passed away this year in her Los Gatos home at age 71. Thank you, Alice, for raising such a son. I cannot imagine the bravery he mustered to fight, or the pain you endured in his loss.
Even now, as I write these words 20 years later, I cannot contain my tears.
Marc Sandalow is associate director of the University of California’s Washington Program, and has written about politics from the nation’s capital since 1993.