Dishonoring the Heroic Passengers on Flight 93

We all should be thankful for the heroics of the passengers of Flight 93 on September 11.  They prevented the hijackers from crashing another plane into another target–the Capitol or White House.  Understandably the families want a memorial honoring the passengers.

But now they are urging President George W. Bush to just grab the property.  Reports the New York Times:

Frustrated by years of negotiations over a parcel of land deemed critical for the proposed Flight 93 National Memorial in Shanksville, Pa., a group representing the victims’ families has asked President Bush to issue an executive order allowing the Interior Department simply to take it.

The formal request was made in a three-page letter delivered to the president’s office in December.

“With less than two months left in your term,” the letter said in part, “we are writing to ask that one of your final acts in office be to guarantee that the memorial to the heroes of Flight 93 — men and women whose heroism you have invoked so powerfully and eloquently over the years — moves forward as you intended.”

Carlton Carroll, a White House spokesman, said the president’s office was considering the request. The families are hoping that the first phase of the memorial will be ready for the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

The leader of the families’ group, Gordon W. Felt, whose older brother, Edward, was one of the 40 passengers and crew members who died on United Flight 93, said Mr. Bush’s help had been sought because “we just thought it would be prudent of us to remind the president that we’re still here and we’re trying to get this project done.”

The executive order would allow the government to take immediate possession of a 273-acre property that includes most of the area where the plane crashed and broke up. It is this area, sacred ground to many, that is considered most crucial to the building of the memorial, some 60 miles southeast of Pittsburgh.

Under such a “quick take” action, a court would decide later the fair value of the land. Ordinarily, land does not change hands in an eminent domain proceeding until a value is set by a court. But that process could take years, and Joanne Hanley, superintendent of the memorial, said that if its first phase was to open in 2011, as the families hope, construction must begin by this fall.

It’s worth remembering that the owners of the land where the plane crashed were innocent victims too, though the harm they suffered obviously was much less.  The property belongs to them, and the Constitution protects property ownership.  Indeed, that protection is one of the fundamental tenets of American liberty.

Although the process of negotiation has been slow, it is succeeding:  the park service owns about 1300 of the 1700 acres that it wants for the memorial.  When the memorial measure was passed in 2002 Congress explicitly forbade use of eminent domain–a fancy name for government theft in far too many cases.  That was changed by an obscure amendment in a large spending bill in 2007 (no one has fessed up to being responsible), but that still doesn’t make it right.

The passengers on Flight 93 represented the best of America.  We should honor them by respecting the liberties they ultimately were defending.  President Bush (and Barack Obama, after he takes office) should give the families a respectful no to their demand that Uncle Sam simply seize the land.