Courage and Choice on Flight 93

By Michael Kinsley
Saturday, May 13, 2006

The story of United Flight 93, more than any other tale of our times, makes you wonder about yourself. These were not young soldiers in battle. This was not the culmination of some long crisis with time to ruminate and firm up your resolve. These were ordinary, middle-class and (mostly) middle-aged Americans going about their everyday lives, when -- bang! -- they faced the ultimate test. And passed. "Once to every man and nation comes the moment to decide," goes the old hymn. But usually it's not literally just a moment. These people were not just courageous. They were instinctually courageous.

I think I'd flunk. Oh, perhaps optimistically, I give myself a 50-50 chance of having the courage to rise from my seat and join a charge toward the cockpit. What I find harder to imagine is disobeying the instructions from authority figures -- flight attendants, anonymous voices over the public address system -- telling me to stay seated and remain calm.

In retrospect, this was bad advice. Similar instructions were even worse advice at the World Trade Center, where people who called 911 were told to remain at their desks. Many fled anyway, made it partway down, and then were told to go back to their desks, or to wait at assembly points in the doomed buildings. Hundreds did as they were told and died as a result. Other hundreds defied authority and survived.

So what's the lesson? Is it to defy authority and follow your instincts in an emergency? For a while after Sept. 11, 2001, there was talk of encouraging the passengers to whack the hijackers with their pillows, and so on. But today airline passengers are still told at the start of the flight that in an emergency they should remain calm and follow orders from anyone in a uniform or -- in the case of United -- even inanimate objects ("lighted signs and placards").

The U.S. government is kicking in millions of dollars for a memorial to the heroes of Flight 93. But meanwhile it is officially encouraging people not to do what these heroes did, should the occasion arise.

It is the nature of authorities to assert authority, and it is hard to imagine officials of anything urging people to pay no attention to official instructions. But there is also some logic here. The policies followed at the World Trade Center seem very wrong in hindsight. But these rules themselves were the product of hindsight. During the first World Trade Center bombing, back in 1993, rescue attempts and fire control were frustrated by the anarchy of thousands fleeing unnecessarily down narrow emergency stairs.

It also seems to be the nature of most people, most of the time, to obey authority. The famous Stanley Milgram experiments at Yale in 1961 demonstrated that it is frighteningly easy to induce ordinary people to inflict pain on others when they are ordered to do so by some authority figure. Sept. 11 demonstrated that most people will sit tight and obey orders even unto their own deaths. The defiance of authority is a big reason the "United 93" story is so thrilling. This was heroism, American-style. John Wayne and Clint Eastwood don't have time for the rules, and neither did they. But obeying authority can be more than an instinct: It can be a conscious choice. In fact, it often is the right choice, both at the time and in hindsight. If, in an airplane emergency, the flight attendant told me to remain in my seat with my seat belt buckled high across my waist and my seat back and tray table in the full upright and locked position, I would be strongly inclined to assume that a trained professional knew more than I did about what was going on and how to deal with it. She, far better than I, could assess the ever-present danger of items shifting in the overhead bins.

And sometimes obeying authority is the counsel of courage, while defying it is the counsel of cowardice. It probably took more courage to climb back up to your office in the World Trade Center than it did to proceed down and out of the building. Foolish courage, as it turns out, but you never know. I suspect that many emergencies are what game theorists call a "prisoner's dilemma" situation, in which everybody is best off if most people obey the rules, but the few who disobey are even better off -- as long as they're only a few. In a situation such as the World Trade Center, for example, the most lives might be saved by an orderly evacuation, but your best shot at saving your own life is to escape before order collapses because everyone else is doing what you do.

Courage and cowardice, obeying instructions and defying them, are all unreliable guides in a crisis. In a way, that's comforting. You can't really get it wrong. You're in the hands of fate (or faith, if you've got it). We celebrate the passengers who rebelled on Flight 93 for their choice, but we surely don't, or shouldn't, blame any of the folks on any of those planes for arriving at a different decision, or none at all.

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