Osama bin Laden is dead. Yippee… I guess.
It is difficult to celebrate the death of another human being, but in his case, I can certainly understand the desire to give a little shout for joy, or at least relief. He was, after all, a mass murderer hell-bent on our demise, indeed the very destruction of our way of life.
I’m sure you remember where you were on 9/11. So do I. But I also remember just as vividly the moment I learned that I had helped train one of the 19 hijackers of 9/11.
The Monday after 9/11 I was driving north on the 101 approaching the intersection of the 202. I was on my way to teach a group of Australian pilots in the Boeing 737 simulator. I was listening to the news. When the name Hani Honjour came over the radio in connection with the attacks, my blood ran cold. I picked up my cell phone and called a coworker at Jet Tech, a flight training school in the Valley.
“Is it true about Hani Honjour?” I asked.
“Where are you? You’re not driving are you?”
I let out a string of expletives as she tried to calm me down. It was true. I had helped train one of the 9/11 hijackers, and my life would forever be connected to that tragedy in a bizarre connection of events.
Honjour, born the fourth child of seven children, came to Tucson in October of 1991. His eldest brother Abdulraham helped him secure room and board. Between 1991 and 1998 he came to the United States to study on three separate occasions. On September 11, he was at the controls of American Airlines Flight 77 when it slammed into the Pentagon.
I was devastated. Guilt burdened me as I thought about my involvement with such a horrible tragedy. I replayed my interaction with Hani over and over again in my mind searching for some clue to his intent. I pondered my actions, and considered plausible alternatives, but the past was hard as stone, and I could do nothing to change it.
I remember well the day he walked into my classroom. He was average build, and wore a baseball cap over his thinning hair. He sported a thin dark mustache that accented a sharp nose. He was quiet, and every time I looked at him he reminded me of a mouse timidly waiting in the corner for a chance at the cheese.
I administered the pretest to the class. He failed it. I told him that he probably wouldn’t make it through the course because he wasn’t prepared. He explained to me, in broken English, that he was only monitoring my class. He would start his official training the next week.
I would like to say that my innate ability for sensing danger kicked in at that point, but it didn’t. Something gnawed at me. Something didn’t feel right, but I certainly wasn’t afraid of a mousy, average-built foreigner in jeans and a baseball cap. During the first break, I walked into the manager’s office and closed the door.
Peggy Chevrette sat behind her desk full of schedules, invoices and student files. She looked up and asked, “What’s up?”
“What’s up with this Hani guy?” I asked. “He’s never going to make it through the course.”
We discussed the issue mostly from a proficiency standpoint. We both wondered how he had even qualified for a flying license since his English proficiency was in question. We talked around the issue. Both of us felt something was amiss, but we couldn’t put our finger on it. We chalked it up to our concerns over his lack of proficiency and ability. Since he was our student and our customer, we pushed those feelings aside and strategized on how to help him get through the program.
Peggy did commit to one important task. She promised to call the FAA and raise the flag about our inept student. Our discussion and her follow-up were the only things that helped assuage my guilt when the truth about our suspicious customer finally hit the airways.
Honjour never did graduate from the B-737 type-rating course at Jet Tech. Peggy, his various instructors, and all the staff bent over backward to help him. I bought him lunch. My wife even gave him a ride to a nearby restaurant. Imagine this future inflictor of terror and horror riding down the street in a minivan with my bubbly wife at the wheel and my two small kids tagging along. Who knew that he was a deadly snake just waiting for his opportunity to strike?
Years ago when I was a kid, a pack of wild dogs infested the woods on the back of our farm in Kentucky. They killed some of our chickens. They threatened our cattle. It wasn’t safe for us to go outside. My uncle showed up with a large-caliber hunting rifle. He told my older brother, probably only about 12 at the time, to grab his twenty-two and some ammunition. They were going to get rid of that menacing pack of wild dogs.
We normally think of dogs as man’s best friend – loyal, loving, protective. We don’t like the thought of killing them, but these dogs were different. From our house on the hill I watched as my brother and uncle followed the fence line down the hill and took up a position behind some brush. The wild dogs were lounging under a tree next to the pond. The shooting started. Several dogs went down and the others started to disperse, but one dog, the largest of the group and probably the leader, started up the hill and doubled back as if he knew the source of the gunfire. I was terrified as I watched the big black dog round the brush pile and bear down on my brother and uncle. At the last moment my uncle turned and shot the dog. It didn’t die on the spot, but it left mortally wounded and would never threaten us again.
I lamented the death of those dogs. It was such a waste. I must have said as much, because my uncle took the opportunity to teach me a bit of homespun wisdom. “Some things just need a killin’,” he said.
Years later, as I tried to make sense of my own connection to 9/11, his words rang true again.
Hani Honjour, and several more of the original 19 hijackers, tasted of the best this country had to offer and then summarily rejected it. They freely traveled our clean and efficient highway system. They dined in our varied restaurants, and shopped in our sprawling shopping centers. They enjoyed our hospitality and were treated with respect, even kindness. In Hani’s case, we bent over backward to help him achieve what we thought was his dream — becoming a commercial pilot.
The 9/11 hijackers were not sheltered soldiers ignorant to the lies propagated to foment their hatred. They saw the web of those lies unravel before their eyes, and then with malice picked up the threads of those lies and reweaved the web themselves.
The hatred that fuels the terrorists should be fought on all fronts. We should promote the principles of freedom that make our country great at home and abroad. We should extend a hand of kindness and generosity to our enemies. We must strive to better understand the plight of misguided people around the world. We must build bridges into enemy territory through sacrifice and selflessness.
However, we cannot forget that despite our good intentions and best efforts, some hatred is insurmountable and just needs “a killin’.” We must remain vigilant and prepared for packs of wild dogs hell-bent on our demise.
• Brock Booher is a former Air Force pilot who now lives in Gilbert and works for a major airline. He was a part-time instructor and worked on a contract basis with Jet Tech, a flight training school that ceased operations shortly after 9/11.