United 93: ‘We have some planes…and not much else’

Paul Greengrass' United 93 is chilling and tragic, but it also lays bare the essential smallness of 9/11.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

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I know you probably shouldn’t judge a film by its trailer any more than you should judge a book by its cover, but Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center – the first film to be made about the downing of the Twin Towers – is asking for it. There was even a ripple of giggling in the cinema audience as Nicholas Cage – playing a New York policeman – told his team of cops, ‘This rescue operation isn’t for everyone…so who’s with me?’, before walking, John Wayne-style and in slow motion, into one of the burning buildings. Later there was a scene of Cage and another policeman buried beneath tonnes of WTC metal and rubble having a conversation about ‘seeing the light’. You could just about hear the cheesy voiceover over the cheesy classical music, saying something like: ‘Most of us only saw evil that day…two men saw something else.’

United 93, the film we had come to see, couldn’t be more different. Here, the collapse of the WTC and attack on the Pentagon are a backdrop to that other 9/11 story: the passenger revolt on United Airlines Flight 93 from New Jersey to San Francisco, which prevented Ziad Jarrah from piloting the plane into the White House or the Capitol and caused it to crash instead into a field in Pennsylvania. There are no famous actors; no heroic one-liners; no attempts to say what that terrible day meant. Where World Trade Center, due out later this year, looks set to tell the mythologised version of 9/11 – all big battles between good and evil – United 93, in cinemas now, reveals what that day was probably really like: confusing for those on the ground, and claustrophobic and terrifying for those in the air.

And by focusing on the hijackers themselves, rather than on the spectacles they created, United 93 also reminds us how essentially small, even historically insignificant – if you will bear with me – 9/11 really was. Up close and personal, we see that this was no declaration of war; it was a scare tactic, a one-off stunt. The hijackers crashed some planes; it is we, not them, who made 9/11 an epoch-defining event.

The film shows air traffic control officials watching in bemusement as a handful of the thousands of flights over America – represented by dots on a vast electronic map of the country – start to do strange things. They stop ‘squawking’ – that is, communicating with authorities on the ground; they turn around and fly in the wrong direction; a couple of them start to fly dangerously low, ‘somewhere over Manhattan’. There is talk of their having been hijacked. ‘A hijacking? We haven’t had one of those for 30 years’, says an official. Then one of the planes goes missing; its dot just disappears from the map. ‘Where has it gone?’ they ask. It is only when one of the ground control team suggests they switch on CNN, and they all see the gaping hole in the side of the first tower of the World Trade Center to be hit, that they realise that’s where it has gone.

The most disturbing scenes unfold on board Flight 93 itself. The big difference between this flight and the other three, of course, is that the passengers sensed what was going to happen. As Jarrah and his three accomplices take control of the plane and shunt the 40 or so passengers and crew into economy class, passengers begin to phone loved ones to tell them their flight has been hijacked. It is then that they learn that planes have hit the WTC and there has been an explosion at the Pentagon. After much fevered discussion, some of the ‘big men’ decide to act. They arm themselves with a fire extinguisher, forks, bottles, and charge and overpower the two hijackers keeping watch over the passengers. They ram the cockpit door with a drinks trolley. Even though you know full well how the story ends, you will still find yourself cheering them on, desperately hoping that they make it.

When they don’t, it is gut wrenching. The last 15 minutes of the film contain some of the most uncomfortable scenes you’re ever likely to see in a cinema.

There have been some complaints that Greengrass has taken liberties with the facts. Maybe, but then this isn’t a documentary. We know that a group of passengers got as far as the cockpit door, which means they must have overpowered the hijackers posted outside the cockpit door. According to the report of the 9/11 Commission, one of the passengers who phoned home said they had ‘voted on whether to rush the terrorists in an attempt to retake the plane’ (1). Voice recordings show that the following conversation took place between Jarrah and the other hijacker inside the cockpit: ‘Is there something?’ ‘Yes, a fight.’ (2) In the background passengers can be heard saying: ‘In the cockpit! If we don’t we’ll die!’ (3) The claim that one of the passengers said ‘Let’s roll’ before taking on the terrorists probably refers to the phrase ‘Roll it!’, which can be heard on voice recordings as the passengers roll the drinks trolley into the cockpit door. One of the hijackers is then heard saying, ‘When they all come, we finish it off’, and minutes later they crashed the flight in a field in Pennsylvania (4). It is believed that the passengers had been only seconds from overpowering Jarrah and the other hijacker.

The intimacy of Greengrass’ filming, where we watch the passengers weep, fret and then fight in the tight enclosed space of a Boeing 757, does not only help to ratchet up the discomfort and tension: it also reveals something about 9/11 itself. The four hijackers are not impressive or powerful people. Ziad Jarrah, played brilliantly by Khalid Abdalla, comes across as a square and reserved student more than a terrible threat to Western civilisation. Indeed, that is what he was. Jarrah was the most middle class and Westernised of the Hamburg cell; he was brought up in a wealthy, secular Lebanese family and was educated at a private Christian school in Lebanon (5). He moved to Germany in 1996 where he studied first German and then aerospace engineering. It is here that he seems to have fallen in with Mohammad Atta and the other future 9/11 hijackers. Even then, unlike other members of the Hamburg cell, Jarrah had a girlfriend – a German woman of Turkish descent – and kept in touch with his family (6).

It is often said that Jarrah was the least certain of the Hamburg cell. So questions have been raised about the fact that, even though Flight 93 left New Jersey 25 minutes later than planned, Jarrah still took a further 46 minutes to start the hijacking. The other teams of hijackers took over their flights within 30 minutes of taking off (7). Did Jarrah have second thoughts? Who knows. Greengrass’ film suggests he was confused, nervous, unclear. The character Jarrah doesn’t say anything to indicate a change of mind but it is there in actor Abdalla’s facial expressions: a sense of doubt and unease. It is a far cry from the image of mad-Arab hijackers determined to bring the American beast to its knees on 9/11, as payback for the Israelis’ oppression of Palestinians (according to left-leaning commentators) or as declaration of war against Western values (in the view of many on the right). In Jarrah’s character in United 93, we glimpse that things are a lot more blurry than that.

In a sense, Jarrah’s doubt depicted in the film captures something about the 9/11 project more broadly. What was it for? We don’t really know: Osama bin Laden has made various statements that either deny responsibility for the attacks or say they were executed for Saudi Arabia or Palestine or as vengeance for a thousand years of Muslim hurt (8); some of the muscle hijackers – the Saudis who were charged with subduing the passengers on 9/11 while the posh kids of the Hamburg cell flew the planes – made video statements talking in vague terms about ‘evil America’, but none of the Hamburg cell did. Why did Jarrah sign up for this enterprise? Again, we don’t know. He left no suicide note or will and testament. For all the theories that have been attached to 9/11 – including Tariq Ali’s claim that the attacks demonstrated the ‘universal truth that…slaves and peasants do not always obey their masters’ (9) – the middle-class, well-educated and apparently sociable Jarrah’s fidgeting in United 93, as he waits to storm the cockpit and fly towards some symbol of American power, suggests that this act cannot so easily be forced into old political categories.

The film shows the three muscle hijackers (who are not especially muscular) as more driven than Jarrah – yet even they have to use transparent scare tactics in an attempt to cow the passengers. Ruthlessly they stab one of the passengers in the neck, presumably so that he will bleed profusely and show the other passengers that the hijackers mean business. They wrap red bandannas around their heads and yell at the passengers in scary, shouty Arabic voices: it is almost as if they are playing off the image of mad Arabs fostered in so many James Bond and Arnold Schwarzenegger movies in the Eighties and Nineties to compensate for their lack of real muscle. (Indeed, author Faisal Devji has noted how al-Qaeda-style terrorists seem to ‘imitate media images of Muslim barbarity’ (10).) One of the hijackers straps a fake bomb around his waist to scare the passengers, though it doesn’t take them long to work out that it’s a dud; they make light work of both the hijacker and his pretend bomb when they get their hands on them later.

Again Greengrass is working from reality: there is evidence that the hijackers thought up various ways to frighten the passengers. As some of the men started fighting back, the hijackers can be heard on voice recordings saying: ‘[Unintelligible] put the axe into it. So everyone will be scared.’ (11) It is assumed that one of them was planning to wield some kind of fire-escape axe in an attempt to put the passengers back in their place. In many ways, the four hijackers’ use of fake explosives and loud ranting to try to strike fear into the heart of the passengers can be seen as a microcosm of what 9/11 itself was all about: that, too, was a loud and noisy event, a bloody one-off, designed to make people feel terrified more than it was the start of a new war or part of some political campaign. Where in Greengrass’ film the hijackers’ scary threats mask their real weakness (as exposed when the passengers later bash them around the head with a fire extinguisher), so the spectacular nature of 9/11, what many have referred to as its disaster-movie quality, masked the lack of political substance behind the attack and the emptiness and weakness of al-Qaeda. Where the hijackers’ screeching and bomb-wielding was sound and fury signifying nothing – or at least very little that we can discern – so too was 9/11, although it clearly had disastrous consequences.

And just as the 19 hijackers committed suicide during their attack, hardly a sign of strength in any kind of campaign, so, effectively, did al-Qaeda as a physical organisation on the morning of 11 September. Since then it has been pretty much three men in a cave issuing virtual threats and occasionally inspiring, apparently, a few disgruntled Muslims in Bali or Madrid or London to murder civilians.

It is fitting that the only communication that occurs between the 9/11 hijackers and the American authorities in Greengrass’ film is when air traffic officials overhear the phrase ‘We have some planes…’ Those words were uttered by one of the hijackers in the cockpit of American Airlines Flight 11 – presumably by Mohammad Atta, who piloted that plane into the World Trade Center – and in the film it is the only clue the authorities have that a hijacking is taking place and that more than one plane is involved. The first chapter of the report of the 9/11 Commission is also titled ‘We have some planes’. That is pretty much the only meaningful statement made by Atta and the rest of them on 9/11 – not ‘We are at war’ or ‘Down with America’ or any list of demands, but simply ‘We have some planes’. Why they took those planes and crashed them where they did still remains unclear; indeed, it is the very vacuousness of 9/11 that has allowed so many readings and theories to be attached to it over the past four-and-a-half years. In United 93 it is left to confused officials on the ground to describe the crashes as an act of war; as one of them says as he looks at the burning WTC, it certainly looks like war.

A few critics have accused Greengrass of taking the hijacking of Flight 93 out of context. What about the politics of it all, they say, the experiences that drove these men to commit such an act? In fact, rather strangely, the struggle between the hijackers and the passengers is really all the context we need. It was not a battle between good and evil, between America and a wicked army from afar; it was a scrappy clash between some young disgruntled middle-class Saudis playing at martyrdom and a group of American commuters who desperately did not want to die. For me, Greengrass’ film captures both how personally tragic and politically insignificant 9/11 was: tragic for those who, by pure misfortune, got caught up in it; and insignificant in the sense that it was little more than a media stunt executed for reasons and aims unknown. It is mainstream society, not the hijackers, who made 9/11 into something historic, the premise from which to launch wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, to ratchet up fear of the terrorist threat, and to introduce new laws that have undermined liberty and free speech.

To put it another way, where the passengers of Flight 93 did not fall for the scare tactics of the four losers who hijacked their plane, others outside the plane did.

Visit Brendan O’Neill’s website here.

(1) 9/11 Report, The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, September 2004

(2) Text of Flight 93 recording, Fox News, 12 April 2006

(3) 9/11 Report, The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, September 2004

(4) 9/11 Report, The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, September 2004

(5) Perfect Soldiers: The 9/11 Hijackers – Who They Were, Why They Did It, Terry McDermott, 2005

(6) Perfect Soldiers: The 9/11 Hijackers – Who They Were, Why They Did It, Terry McDermott, 2005

(7) 9/11 Report, The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, September 2004

(8) See Bin Laden’s script: ghost-written in the West, by Brendan O’Neill

(9) The Clash of Fundamentalisms: Crusades, Jihad and Modernity, Tariq Ali, 2002

(10) Landscapes of the Jihad, Faisal Devji, 2005

(11) Text of Flight 93 recording, Fox News, 12 April 2006

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Topics Politics


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