The White-Collar Warrior

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Before he caught united airlines flight 93 from Newark, N.J., to San Francisco on Sept. 11, Todd Beamer was engaged in a kind of soul searching that we have come to think of as very post-9/11. In Among the Heroes (HarperCollins), New York Times reporter Jere Longman writes that Beamer was tired of leaving his family for business. He was working at home more often. He had postponed his sales trip by one day to spend time with his sons and planned, after a day's work, to catch the red-eye home that night.

Instead, Beamer added "Let's roll" to the patriotic lexicon when he and his fellow passengers attacked the hijackers, who intended to crash the jet in Washington. As they struggled, the plane went down in a Pennsylvania field, killing all on board. Flight 93 became the Warsaw Uprising of 9/11, a national blueprint for resistance and a tonic against helplessness.

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But another reason the story resonates so deeply is that many of us are in Beamer's position. Since Sept. 11, we've told ourselves that facing our mortality changed our attitudes toward work and life. Yet here we are, still working in those office towers, still catching those planes. This is the paradox of our post-9/11 "reprioritizing": America — credit-addicted, 25-brands-of-toothpaste-on-the-shelf America — cannot afford for us to examine our lives too closely. Our way of life is predicated on our not taking stock; not getting off the career-overtime-promotion hamster wheel; not, God forbid, living each day as if it might be our last. Because who would spend that day in an airless cubicle or on the 8:30 to Denver? We needed to believe that civilian, commuter-consumer life is heroic. And Flight 93--a weekday flight carrying largely business travelers — rendered the term "road warrior" literal for us.

Among the Heroes, based on voluminous interviews as well as cell-phone calls and black-box tapes from the flight, is a chronicle of that battle and a memorial to the fallen. There is much that we may never know: Who rushed the cockpit? How close did they come to saving themselves and getting home? And why, exactly, did these people fight back?

Longman's answer is reminiscent of the pre-9/11 business-strategy tomes that explain success in terms of combat and athletic metaphors. "These were people at the top of their game," he writes, "who kept score in their lives and who became successful precisely because they were assertive." They were company presidents, managers, writers. They played sports — baseball, football, rugby, judo — and drew life lessons from them. They believed in the moral value of work. They expected the best of themselves and others (one passenger once went out to lunch and sent his cheeseburger back eight times).

These portraits are, like any obituary, colored by friends' and families' loving remembrances of the departed. But there is something else at work here. At times, Longman describes the passengers as if they were job candidates. They were "self-directed, independent thinkers," he writes, "people who could assess a situation and work in teams." If this reads like Management Secrets of Flight 93, in a way it is; Longman is explaining these heroes using the terms by which the world measured them. (And nearly a year and WorldCom later, it is heartening to see business skills treated as noble.)

But it is also a reach. As Longman notes, Flight 93's passengers had a practical advantage: their flight was hijacked after the other three, and they learned about the suicide missions over cell phones and air phones. Any other explanation for their bravery is secondary. Of course you're going to find Type A, goal-oriented people flying cross-country on an 8 a.m. Tuesday flight. But what's to say that a planeload of weekend vacationers wouldn't have fought for their lives too? Nothing, except maybe a quasi-Calvinist assumption: success breeds virtue, and those who were leaders on the earth must have been leaders in the air.

Among the Heroes isn't propaganda. But it isn't quite history either. It's in part an obituary, obligated to speak well of the dead, and in part a parable, obligated to speak well of the living. The heroes of Flight 93 may have saved hundreds of lives. But it seems we want still more from them. We want inspiration, yes, but validation too. We want them to convince us that the qualities we so greatly valued on Sept. 10 (entrepreneurialism, ambition, stick-to-itiveness) are relevant, necessary, even heroic now. We want them to make us believe — for the sake of the Todd Beamers still reluctantly catching flights — that "re-evaluating our priorities" and "doing business as usual" are, despite everything our gut tells us, really the same thing.