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Note: I went to Shanksville, Pennsylvania on Sept. 15.
President George W. Bush…Sept. 10, 2011…on the dedication of the new national memorial in honor of the crew and passengers of United Flight 93 at Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
When the sun rose in the Pennsylvania sky ten years ago tomorrow, it was a peaceful September morning. By the time it set, nearly 3,000 people were gone – the most lives lost on American soil in a single day since the Battle of Antietam.
With the distance of a decade, 9/11 can feel like part of a different era. But for the families of the men and women stolen, some of whom have joined us today, that day will never feel like history. The memory of that morning is fresh, and so is the pain. America shares your grief. We pray for your comfort. And we honor your loved ones.
On September 11, 2001, innocent men and women went to work at the World Trade Center, reported for duty at the Pentagon, and boarded American Flights 11 and 77, and United Flights 93 and 175. They did nothing to provoke or deserve the deliberate act of murder that al Qaeda carried out.
One of the lessons of 9/11 is that evil is real, and so is courage. When the planes struck the World Trade Center, firefighters and police officers charged up the stairs, into the flames. As the towers neared collapse, they continued the rescue. Ultimately, more than 400 police officers and firefighters gave their lives. Among them was the chief of the New York City Fire Department, Pete Ganci. As a colleague put it, “He would never ask anyone to do something he didn’t do himself.”
At the Pentagon, service members and civilians pulled friends and strangers from burning rubble. One Special Forces soldier recalls “reaching through a cloud of smoke” in search of the wounded. As he entered one room, he prayed to find someone alive. He discovered a severely burned woman and carried her to safety. They later met in the hospital, where she explained that she had been praying for rescue. She called him her “guardian angel.”
Then there is the extraordinary story we commemorate here. Aboard United Airlines Flight 93 were college students from California, an ironworker from New Jersey, veterans of the Korean War and World War II, citizens of Germany and Japan, and a pilot who had rearranged his schedule so that he could take his wife on vacation to celebrate their anniversary.
When the passengers and crew realized the plane had been hijacked, they reported the news calmly. When they learned that terrorists had crashed other planes into targets on the ground, they accepted greater responsibilities.
In the back of the cabin, the passengers gathered to devise a strategy. At the moment America’s democracy was under attack, our citizens defied their captors by holding a vote. The choice they made would cost them their lives. And they knew it.
Many passengers called their loved ones to say goodbye, then hung up to perform their final act. One said, “They’re getting ready to break into the cockpit. I have to go. I love you.” Another said, “It’s up to us. I think we can do it.” In one of the most stirring accounts, Todd Beamer, a father of two with a pregnant wife at home in New Jersey, asked the airphone operator to join him in reciting the Lord’s Prayer.
Then he helped lead the charge to the front of the plane with two words: “Let’s Roll.” With their selfless act, the men and women who stormed the cockpit lived out the words, “Greater love hath no man than this; that a man lay down his life for his friends.”
And with their brave decision, they launched the first counteroffensive of the war on terror. The most likely target of the hijacked plane was the United States Capitol. We will never know how many innocent people might have been lost. But we do know this: Americans are alive today because the passengers and crew of Flight 93 chose to act, and this Nation will be forever grateful.
The 40 souls who perished with the plane left a great deal behind. They left spouses, children, and grandchildren who miss them dearly. They left successful businesses, promising careers, and a lifeline of dreams that they will never have the chance to fulfill. And they left something else: a legacy of bravery and selflessness that will always inspire America.
For generations, people will study the story of Flight 93. They will learn that individual choices make a difference, that love and sacrifice can triumph over evil and hate, and that what happened above this Pennsylvania field ranks among the most courageous acts in American history.
The memorial we dedicate today will ensure that our nation always remembers those lost here on 9/11. But we have a duty beyond memory. We have a duty beyond honoring. We have a duty to live our lives in a way that upholds the ideals for which the men and women gave their lives – to build a living memorial to their courage and sacrifice.
First, we have a duty to find common purpose as a nation. In the days after 9/11, the response came like a single hand over a single heart. Members of Congress from both sides of the aisle gathered on the steps outside the Capitol and sang, “God Bless America.”
Neighbors reached out to neighbors of all backgrounds and beliefs. In the past decade, our country has been tested – by natural disaster, economic turmoil, and anxieties about challenges at home and abroad. There have been spirited debates along the way. That is the essence of democracy. But Americans have never been defined by our disagreements. Whatever challenges we face today and in the future, we must never lose faith in our ability to meet them together. And we must never allow our differences to harden into divisions.
Second, we have a duty to remain engaged in the world. 9/11 proved that the conditions in a country on the other side of the world can have an impact on our own streets. It may be tempting to think that it does not matter what happens to a villager in Afghanistan or a child in Africa.
But the temptation of isolation is deadly wrong. A world of oppression and anger and resentment will be a source of never-ending violence and threats. A world of dignity and liberty and hope will be safer and better for all. And the surest way to move toward that vision is for the United States of America to lead the cause of freedom.
Finally, we each have a duty to serve a cause larger than ourselves. The passengers aboard Flight 93 set an example that inspires us all. Many have followed their path of service by donating blood, mentoring a child, or volunteering in desperate corners of the Earth. Some have devoted their careers to analyzing intelligence, protecting our borders, or securing our skies.
Others have made the noble choice to defend our nation in battle. For ten years, our troops have risked and given their lives to prevent our enemies from attacking America again. They have kept us safe, they have made us proud, and they have upheld the spirit of service shown by the passengers of Flight 93.
Many years ago in 1863, another President came to dedicate a memorial site in this state. He told his audience that “in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground,” for the brave souls who struggled there had “consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract.” He added that “the world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.”
So it is with Flight 93. For as long as this memorial stands, we will remember what the men and women aboard that plane did here. We will pay tribute to the courage they showed, the sacrifice they made, and the lives they spared. And the United States of America will never forget.
May God bless you all, and may God bless our country.