My trip to Ligonier and western Pennsylvania in 2012 ended with a visit to the Flight 93 Memorial in Shanksville. I’d planned on stopping on the way to Ligonier a week earlier, but I was running late and arrived after the memorial has closed for the day.
The entrance on Route 30 was clearly marked, and I had no trouble finding it. The road leading to the memorial is long, which allowed me time to reflect on what I would see, and remember what I had seen nearly 11 years ago. This seemed accidental, as the reason the road was so long was that the crash site was far from any road.
Distance, however, was built into the memorial design. After parking I visited a plaza with displays on the men and women of the flight, the events of September 11, the counterattack on the terrorists in the cockpit, and the crash. I passed through a small partially enclosed seating area and began a long walk to the memorial wall. Along the paved path is a small wall, with notches cut into it for people to lay tributes. I passed flowers, notes, watches, coins and patches and medallions as I walked towards the wall.
The wall itself was imposing, a series of marble slabs joined together into a continuous ribbon of stone. Each of the slabs has a name of a passenger or crew member of United Flight 93. From a distance the snaking line of white marble induced a hush in people walking towards it. I didn’t hear anyone speak above a whisper as I approached the wall. I know some people have criticized the design of the memorial as lacking a heroic element, but I’m not sure a conventional statue or monument would have had the intended effect.
The emerging tradition at the wall is to photograph every name. The boy in the photo and the man cut off to the right are doing just that. The boy at the time of the attacks was probably too young to understand what was happening. He’s obviously learned about 9/11 and has respect for the sacrifice made on Flight 93. I’ve seen some boorish behavior at historic sites, including people sitting on gravestones at Gettysburg, so I was heartened by what I saw here.
As I returned to my car I stopped at the seating area and wrote out a message on one of the cards provided. The message to the right isn’t mine, but one I agree with. We honor those who died at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and those who came to save lives after, but the people who fought terrorism that day lie in a field in rural Pennsylvania. They weren’t soldiers; they didn’t intended to fight when they boarded the plane. But when they had to, they fought.
America is a country built on ideas and ideals. Those can fall and change at any time, which is why they, and America, need to be defended. Whatever happens to the United States in the future, in a Pennsylvania field there will be a patch of ground that will always be American.