You can trademark words but not meaning.
In a country that has long been cuckoo for catch phrases—from "Give me liberty or give me death" to "I want my Maypo" to "Whassuupp"—it's hardly surprising that 9/11 would generate a quasi-official slogan. Or that it would be "Let's roll!," the last known words of Todd Beamer, the most widely recognized hero-victim of the terrorist attacks.
Despite its relative inscrutability, "Let's roll!"—Beamer's signature phrase, heard by a GTE phone operator who'd been in contact with him during the doomed flight—somehow summed up the courage of the brave souls who mounted a revolt against the hijackers on United Flight 93. By causing the plane to crash in a field in western Pennsylvania rather than some likely target in Washington, D.C., Beamer and his fellow passengers saved dozens or hundreds of lives even as they gave up their own.
Yet as soon as a phrase—especially a heartfelt and serious one—is uttered, it immediately starts morphing into something else, typically a parodic version of itself. When's the last time anyone uttered "Ich bin ein Berliner," "I am not a crook," or "I've fallen and I can't get up" as something other than a punch line? "Let's roll!" is itself taking on an increasingly curious afterlife as the specifics of 9/11 recede from public memory.
Ironically, it's the phrase's official guardians who are transforming "Let's roll!" into a generalized "lifestyle" statement. Earlier this year, the Todd M. Beamer Foundation, a nonprofit founded by Beamer's widow, raised eyebrows when it trademarked the slogan, both to control its usage and to raise money for programs that "seek…to equip children experiencing family trauma to make heroic choices every day." But the foundation has done more than just sell its own "Let's roll!" paraphernalia as a fund raising tool. It's pursued a series of odd licensing choices that strain the credulity of even the least cynical observers.
In June, for instance, the foundation let Wal-Mart use the phrase as an employee motivation slogan and as a theme for its annual shareholder meeting. "It's an inspirational use of 'Let's Roll,'" Beamer Foundation CEO Douglas A. MacMillan suggested to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, reiterating that the words are "a call to action."
In August the foundation gave its blessing to Florida State University's football team, which has slapped "Let's roll!" on T-shirts, baseball caps, and other items. Each year legendary coach Bobby Bowden selects a theme for the season. "We are going to go with 'Let's roll,' based on the airplane guy making that remark," Bowden churlishly explained on the FSU Web site (in Bowden's defense, one of the things he is legendary for is forgetting names). "Not only for that but the season is here, the challenges are here, let's roll."
Rather than distancing the Beamer Foundation from a tasteless equation of the struggle on Flight 93 with college football, MacMillan embraced it. "By picking that phrase, Coach Bowden is carrying on Todd's legacy," he said, adding, "Todd was a huge sports fan. I'm sure he's thrilled."
Maybe, maybe not. He's probably more excited by the latest product to prominently feature the slogan: the book Let's Roll!: Ordinary People, Extraordinary Courage (Tyndale), by his widow, Lisa Beamer, and Ken Abraham. Despite many truly odd touches—Abraham is identified on the jacket as a "professional writer with world-class credentials" and the coauthor of a biography of golfer Payne Stewart, who also died in an airplane crash—Let's Roll! is mostly a touching memoir, especially the section that uses multiple sources to reconstruct the grim struggle aboard Flight 93. Yet the book is at its weakest precisely when it invokes its vague and overused catch phrase—"'Let's roll!' is not a slogan, a book, or a song; it's a lifestyle," insists Beamer at one point—rather than poignant human details.
Exactly what "Let's roll!" will come to mean over the years is anyone's guess, though we can safely assume its final iteration will be an odd subversion of its original referent. "Remember the Alamo!," despite its imperative demand for historical consciousness, actually started out as but half of a slogan urging Texans in their war with Mexico to "Remember Goliad!," another infamous massacre. "In like Flynn," now a generic term for ease of entry, originated among G.I.s wryly referencing the screen legend Errol Flynn's 1942 trial for statutory rape.
"Let's roll!" may well go down as Florida State's great rallying cry, or a mantra mumbled by especially motivated Wal-Mart sales associates. That won't be so bad, assuming that we remember the heroes on Flight 93 for what they did, not just what they said.