and the life of a county clerk
Flight 93 and the U.S. Capitol. Flight 93 was the hijacked airliner which crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, last September 11, apparently due to intervention by passengers. The terrorists were heading the plane to Washington, but the specific target they had in mind has been a matter of speculation.
News items now quote al-Qaida sources as revealing that they planned to crash Flight 93 into the U.S. Capitol Building.
To me, this is a surprise. Another one of the hijacked planes had to execute a fancy turn and veer right past the Capitol in order to hit the Pentagon. If the vast Pentagon complex was such a high-priority target, it made sense that al-Qaida would want to hit it in two places. That would also make for a certain symmetry: two planes for the World Trade Center, two planes for the Pentagon.
But now it appears that model of the terrorists' intentions was incorrect.
What would have happened if Flight 93 had hit the Capitol? An unthinkable but unavoidable question, especially for those of us in historic preservation.
As horrifying as it was to hear on September 11, as the World Trade Center towers were falling, that "the Pentagon is burning," it would have been so very much worse to hear that the Capitol was also burning. Possibly the additional blow, right at the symbolic center of our democracy, would have led to a different kind of national reaction, but I doubt it.
On the other hand, the Capitol and other major buildings in D.C. had already been evacuated by the time Flight 93 would have arrived, so loss of life (apart from those aboard the plane) would have been minimal.
Lucky for us, the Flight 93 hijackers waited until the plane was near Cleveland before taking it over, a delay which made it possible for the passengers to learn via cell phones what was going on elsewhere, and for potential target structures to be emptied of people.
Presumably the terrorists would have aimed for the dome, an obvious symbol of U.S. democracy, and the only part of the building that is instantly visually familiar worldwide. And they could easily have destroyed the dome, which is made of cast iron.
But think about what that would have meant for the scope of the disaster. There really isn't much underneath the dome, mainly the Rotunda. The House and Senate are in the wings to either side, actually at some distance from the Rotunda, if you have ever walked it. And the Capitol, due to its location and layout, is considerably more accessible to fire fighting crews than the Pentagon, so the fire could probably have been confined to the center section.
Damage, in other words, might well have been quite contained, with the rest of the building restored to service within days.
(It is possible that a plane hitting the dome above its base would have smashed right through it, ending up beyond the Capitol and possibly destroying other buildings, maybe the Library of Congress or the Supreme Court. But the Capitol is exposed on a hill, so it wouldn't have been hard to hit it lower down, the way the Pentagon was. And the Capitol grounds are pretty spacious, so the impact zone of a plane angled down toward the building would probably not have spread into the surrounding neighborhood.)
In the aftermath of such a catastrophe affecting a historic landmark of major national importance, we surely would have seen two divergent lines of opinion:
(1) "Put it back!" Make it just like it was, or the terrorists have won. Presumably this would be a stronger and more effective movement for the Capitol than it turned out to be for the World Trade Center.
If this line of thought had been successful, there would have been a big new call for artisans skilled in stone carving and cast iron work. Undoubtedly the historic preservation field would have benefited both directly and indirectly. Purists would still point out that the replacement is a new building, not the historic landmark. However, if the wings both survived, SOMETHING would be needed to connect them. (Ironically the Capitol started as two separate sections on opposite sides of where the Rotunda was later built, and those two sections were burned, but not destroyed, by enemy action during the War of 1812.)
(2) "The nation is its people, not a building." Why replicate an inefficient 19th century structure at great cost? Let's create new symbols, or at least, modern buildings.
This argument would be a good deal stronger if the Capitol were destroyed in toto, and the debate were between re-creating the quirky original or replacing it with a modern building with some superficial resemblances. A plastic or fiberglass dome would look exactly the same on TV as the cast-iron original; some would surely point out that cast iron was the fiberglass of its day.
Remember The Onion's piece last May (reprinted as news in China), about "Congress Threatens to Leave D.C. Unless New Capitol Is Built"?
The spoof "quotes" Dennis Hastert as saying "Don't get us wrong: We love the drafty old building ... But the hard reality is, it's no longer suitable for a world-class legislative branch. The sight lines are bad, there aren't enough concession stands or bathrooms, and the parking is miserable. It hurts to say, but the capitol's time has come and gone."
It's not hard to imagine the real Hastert, or others in Congress, saying the same thing over the ashes of the old building.
The most extreme form of this might even have included calls to relocate the national capital to the heartland, say, to central Kansas. Here again, this kind of thing rises in likelihood with the scale of the destruction. If the White House and the Capitol had both been totally destroyed, and the Pentagon perhaps more heavily damaged than it was, the concept of starting over someplace else might have gotten a lot of momentum, notwithstanding the colossal investment of other federal facilities in the Washington area.
Just a few grim thoughts about what else might have happened one year ago today -- and the debt we owe to the heroic passengers on Flight 93.
Dave Barry wrote a very thoughtful and moving essay on the parallels between Gettysburg and Shanksville, including the role of monuments, memory, and random chance. Read it.
....Posted by Lawrence Kestenbaum.
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