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Michael Smerconish Headshot

Instinct of an American Hero

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Customs officer Jose Melendez-Perez stopped the 20th terrorist, who was supposed to be on Flight 93 that crashed in Pennsylvania. Probably because of the shorthanded muscle on that team, the passengers were able to overcome the terrorists.

Melendez-Perez did this at great personal risk, because his colleagues and his supervisors told him, "You can't do this. This guy is an Arab ethnic. You're racially profiling. You're going to get in real trouble, because it's against Department of Transportation policy to racially profile."

He said, "I don't care. This guy's a bad guy. I can see it in his eyes." As he sent this guy back out of the United States, the guy turned around to him and said, 'I'll be back.' You know, he is back. He's in Guantanamo. We captured him in Afghanistan.

Do you think Melendez-Perez got a promotion? Do you think he got any recognition? Do you think he is doing any better than the 19 of his timeserving, unaccountable colleagues? Don't think any bit of it. We have no accountability, but we're going to restore it.

Those words were spoken by ex-Navy secretary and 9/11 Commission member John Lehman on March 31, 2004, at the 130th annual meeting of the U.S. Naval Institute and Annapolis Naval History Symposium.

His observations about Melendez-Perez's lack of recognition were part of my motivation to write Instinct: The Man Who Stopped the 20th Hijacker, which will be published tomorrow.

Neither Melendez-Perez nor I will profit from the book. All author proceeds are being donated to the Flight 93 national memorial, in Shanksville, Pa.

Shanksville is where you'll find Melendez-Perez tomorrow, along with 12 busloads of individuals (500 in all) wishing to accompany him across Pennsylvania at sunrise.

He's never seen the place where United Airlines Flight 93 crashed on Sept. 11, 2001. The plane -- the only one hijacked by four terrorists, not five -- would have been carrying Mohamed al-Kahtani, the man Melendez-Perez prevented from entering the U.S. on Aug. 4, 2001.

We now know that 9/11 ringleader Mohamed Atta drove to Orlando International Airport that day to pick up the young Saudi. The FBI discovered that somebody had placed a call from an airport pay phone to al Qaeda logistical coordinator Mustafa al-Hawsawi around the same time. Investigators concluded in the summer of 2002 that Kahtani was the intended fifth hijacker on Flight 93.

I hope publication of Instinct will provide Melendez-Perez with the well-deserved recognition he's never had among the general populace. Already, former U.S. Sen. Bob Kerrey and his 9/11 Commission colleague Richard Ben-Veniste have responded by praising the role of the man who sent Kahtani back to Dubai.

"Immigration Inspector Jose Melendez-Perez, along with other unspoken heroes, displayed remarkable instincts in making sure that somebody who has hostile intent against the United States of America does not get the chance to carry out a catastrophe," Kerrey said recently.

Ben-Veniste called Melendez-Perez a "true American hero."

He continued: "But for his actions in preventing the 20th hijacker, Mohamed al-Kahtani, from entering the United States, the Capitol building might have been destroyed on 9/11."

And now the Department of Homeland Security, which for years seemed to waver in its support for Melendez-Perez, is recognizing his critical role. This week, Secretary Janet Napolitano told me:

There are lots of stories that come out of 9/11 and lessons learned out of 9/11. But one of the lessons learned is obviously the value of law enforcement -- trained, well-supervised, experienced, doing their jobs. And this is one of the few stories out of 9/11 that shows how that can work.

Indeed. The decision to support Melendez-Perez as he tells that story can be described only as right.

But the acknowledgment of his heroism shouldn't end there. Eight years removed from the Sept. 11 attacks, the war on terror has devolved into a bitterly partisan endeavor.

Here's hoping more Americans come to consider Jose Melendez-Perez a post-partisan model for success.