“Let’s Roll”

Two United flight attendants look out toward the Flight 93 crash site in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, September 11, 2002.Photo: Chris Usher

Before United Airlines Flight 93 entered history as the only one of the four planes not to hit its target—assumed to be either the U.S. Capitol or the White House—it took off 40 minutes late on its San ­Francisco–bound trip, owing to congestion at Newark airport. Only four hijackers were onboard, as opposed to five on the other planes, likely because presumed twentieth hijacker Mohammed al-Qahtani had been denied entrance to the United States a month earlier, and for unknown reasons the hijackers waited 46 minutes after takeoff to overtake the cockpit, as opposed to the 30 minutes their co-conspirators had. Because of those delays, Flight 93 was still in the air well after the three other planes had collided into the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon, and the hijacked passengers were able to learn of those crashes over the course of the 37 calls they made from GTE air phones and cell phones. The happenstance created opportunities for heroism, which several passengers then amply supplied. Tom Burnett, 38, told his wife, “We’re all going to die. There’s three of us who are going to do something about it.” Mark Bingham, 31, told the FBI, through his mother, that the hijackers claimed to have a bomb. The last words Jeremy Glick, 31, said to his spouse were, “We’re going to rush the hijackers.” But it was Todd Beamer, 32, connected with a GTE supervisor while attempting to reach his pregnant wife, who calmly and decisively uttered the iconic phrase: “Are you guys ready? Let’s roll.” Paul Greengrass’s 2006 movie, United 93, got the tone right, depicting “Let’s roll” not as a final battle cry so much as a simple statement made by one man among many who realized that the choices were to die or to die fighting. But inevitably, it was more commonly evoked as “Let’s roll!,” emphatic exclamation point intended.

Neil Young wrote one of the first of several anthems invoking the phrase. Melissa Etheridge used it to conclude a track she’d written in honor of Bingham, an openly gay former college-rugby champion. The Florida State Seminoles made it their official team slogan for the 2002 season, with the blessing of the Todd M. Beamer Foundation (which sought to have the phrase trademarked). George W. referred to the words as “a new ethic and a new creed”; in Afghanistan, it was emblazoned on the sides of certain fighter jets. But as that war and the war in Iraq continued, the need for the phrase to rally spirits diminished, along with the public’s battle lust. It will have no place in the permanent Flight 93 memorial to the 40 passengers and crew members who perished.

A Scene From United 93, the Movie Flight attendant [crying into an airplane phone]: Help. Help me. I’ve been on a plane that’s been hijacked …
Male passenger:
Our father, who art in heaven.
Second female
Hallowed be thy name.
Third female passenger:
Forgive us our trespasses …
Fourth female passenger [crying into cell phone]:
I don’t want to be here. Baby, I don’t wanna be here. Baby.
Male passenger [on an airplane phone]:
We’re going to break into the cockpit. Everything’s going to be fine. I love you too …
Todd Beamer [whispering]:
Guys, we’ve been waiting for it. Let’s roll. C’mon, let’s go already. [Looks around at uncertain fellow passengers] Let’s go!
“Let’s Roll”