Todd Beamer is a distant relative of mine. The Beamers and the van Gorders intermarried in Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania, before spreading out across the country. Todd was born in Flint, Michigan, but his family moved to Chicago where he grew up cheering for his beloved Cubs and Bears. Later he attended Wheaton College to study youth ministry. Todd met his sweetheart Lisa during their senior seminar class. They went on to have two boys, David and Drew.
Lisa was five months pregnant with their daughter on Sept. 11, 2001, when Todd, 32, called from an Airfone on the runway of Newark International Airport to say his business daytrip to San Francisco was delayed an hour. Forty-five minutes after takeoff, Flight 93 was hijacked by terrorists. Todd tried calling Lisa again but the call was rerouted to Verizon customer service manager Lisa Jefferson, who asked him what was happening. Todd and three other passengers — Jeremy Glick, Tom Burnett and Mark Bingham, all former college athletes like himself — were forming a plan to take back the plane.
Todd asked Jefferson to pray the Lord’s Prayer with him, then to call his wife to tell her that he loved her.
Then Todd’s team burst into action. Jefferson heard Todd Beamer’s last words: “Are you ready? OK. Let’s roll!”
This much we know: Whatever target the terrorists intended, Beamer and his fellow patriots changed the dynamics sufficiently that the airliner instead crashed into a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. The final resting place of the 40 passengers and crew members of Flight 93 now hosts the Flight 93 National Monument, complete with recordings of final calls that passengers made to loved ones. To quote one visitor to the monument this summer, “Halfway through the second call, I had to hang up, as it was so emotional. You could feel the pain in the voice. Our nation owes so much to those brave people who fought back. Although they lost their lives, they likely saved our nation’s capital.”
Twenty years later, most of my students at Baylor University have no memory of the day that changed the American mindset. Before 9/11, we were far less afraid, far more naive. From the moment the first plane hit the World Trade Center and the moment the second airliner struck 17 minutes later, most of us mulled over TV commentators’ speculations about pilot error or a helicopter crash.
Then, right before our eyes, the second plane hit. And all of us knew America was under attack.
Much changed that morning. America has fought two faraway wars in response to the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, and a planned attack on the Capitol or White House. But instead of thinking about al-Qaida, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Patriot Act, Guantanamo and myriad other reactions, maybe today we should just stop and remember Todd Beamer, his wife and their children.
We should remember the 6,000 people injured and the 2,977 from 77 countries who perished in the attack. We should pray for their families — pray for the 9/11 spouses and orphans. Life changed suddenly for them in New York, near Washington, D.C. and — yes — not far from Shanksville, population 245.
Maybe, too, we should remember how united our nation was right after the attack. Upon learning what happened that morning, I left work and took my kids out of school, brought them home and hugged and held them close. That morning, none of us were Republicans or Democrats. We were all Americans.
Today, we have lost that unity. An ABC News/Washington Post poll suggests 41 percent of us believe the United States has become less safe since 9/11, reflecting not only changes on the ground in Afghanistan but partisan rifts here at home. Maybe remembering 9/11, Todd Beamer, the thousands of brave firefighters, police officers and emergency medical technicians who rushed to help, the thousands who went off to fight for us after 9/11 can rally us to a place where we should be — more united in love and gratitude for this great country.
Todd Beamer offered a parting message that all Americans need to hear again: “Are you ready? OK. Let’s roll!”
A. Christian van Gorder is associate professor of world religions and Islamic studies at Baylor University.