Op-Ed: Just imagine if that 4th airliner had hit the Capitol

The events of January 6 caused a shock in the American psyche. The government was briefly dissolved. More than 100 police officers were injured; nine people died in connection to the riot. More than 500 domestic terrorists have been arrested. The price tag for the damage is an estimated $500 million.

Despite all this, the government quickly recovered. Vice President Mike Pence managed to escape the noose, while Speaker Nancy Pelosi was able to evade the mob. Within hours, Pence and Pelosi, along with the rest of Congress, returned to the Capitol in order to verify the fair results of the election.

The media insists that Jan. 6 was a unique event in modern history and that it was only the second attack on the U.S. Capitol. (The first, in 1814, was when British soldiers torched a much smaller building.) This is not true.

On Sept. 11, 2001, when the World Trade Center towers fell and the Pentagon was attacked, Al Qaeda terrorists also targeted the seat of government, most likely the U.S. Capitol. The fourth hijacked plane, United Airlines Flight 93, originally bound for San Francisco from Newark, came within minutes of not just interrupting American democracy but eviscerating it.

The story of the valiant revolt of Flight 93’s passengers, ending in its crash in a rural Pennsylvania field, has almost completely obscured how close the Capitol came to total destruction on that day, and how much worse 9/11’s losses could have been.

First, let’s dispense with the popular notion that Flight 93 was aimed at the White House. Although it’s possible, most evidence points to the Capitol .. Two of the plot’s “masterminds” confirmed it in post-9/11 interviews, as does logic.

Flight 93’s terrorist pilot, Ziad Jarrah, struggled in flight school, barely graduating. He would have been aware that he did not have the experience or skill to hit the White House as precisely as they wanted. The White House is small and hidden among tall buildings and trees, making it difficult for even the most skilled pilot to fly an airliner at hundreds per hour on a suicide mission. On the other hand, the U.S. Capitol is hard to miss — domed, massive and perched on a hill that Charles L’Enfant, in 1791, called a “pedestal waiting for a monument.”

Jarrah’s weaknesses went deeper than his flying skills. As the seminal 9/11 Commission Report made clear, he was a terrorist in conflict, nearly pulling out of the operation because of a romantic relationship with a Turkish German woman. How his doubts played into the fate of Flight 93 isn’t clear, but cockpit recordings indicate he was far from a cool customer as the passengers tried to retake the plane.

The fact that Jarrah was not a dedicated terrorist is one of many historical accidents that contributed to saving the Capitol.

Perhaps most importantly, Flight 93 left Newark Airport 25 minutes late, and the hijackers were comparatively slow to take charge of the plane. That gave the passengers and crew, in touch with the outside world via cell and Airfone, about 20 minutes to grasp the 9/11 plot and act against it.

Also by happenstance, Jarrah’s team numbered four members rather than five, as was the case with the other 9/11 flights. Jarrah took control of the cockpit with one man, leaving only two “muscle men”, who threatened passengers with box cutters and knives.

There was an amazing passenger pool. Some passengers voted to take action as the plane headed toward Washington.

” I don’t think people realize what could have been if these heroes hadn’t done what they did,” Alan M. Hantman stated in an interview. On Sept. 11, 2001, Hantman was the architect of the Capitol. It may seem understandable that Americans don’t see the possibility of what could have been.

Given the number of variables involved in the crash of an airliner into Capitol (angle and point impact, speed and gas load), it would take a supercomputer in order to determine the likely outcomes and the consequences in death and destruction. (Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory declined my request to conduct such an investigation. The Capitol was not a fortress at the time (and it isn’t anymore).

Congress was in session on 9/11. Had the Capitol been struck at about the same time as the Pentagon — 9: 37 a.m. — tourists, school kids, staffers, senators and representatives would have been at risk. Then House Speaker Dennis Hastert estimated 5,000 people were working in or near the site that day. The loss of priceless artworks and the damage to the nearby congressional offices buildings, as well as the Supreme Court building could have been collateral damage. My wife, who was there that morning at the Library of Congress, could have been a victim. )

The destruction of the World Trade Center was a direct attack on America’s economy. The Pentagon’s gouging was an insult to American military power. The most important of all was the leveling the Capitol. It is not clear how long it would have taken for the levers to be restored. It would have been a devastating blow to the nation to see hundreds of thousands, if not more, of elected officials, citizens, and public servants go.

We rightly honor the heroes of 9/11’s fourth hijacked airliner. Their contributions to history are incalculable. We should not forget the “what-ifs” that their bravery prevented. Flight 93 was a close call and a signal, one that was amplified on Jan. 6: The American experiment is fragile; it cannot be made perfectly secure.

James Reston Jr. is the author of many books, including most recently, ” The Nineteenth Hijacker: a novel of 9/11.” An expansion of this argument can be found in the September issue of American Heritage.

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