United Airlines pilot Mark MacKenzie, a 767 captain, lost plenty on Sept. 11.

Mark MacKenzie

His close friend Jason Dahl, the man he shared a desk with at United's Denver offices, was captain of the 767 that crashed in Pennsylvania. Reduced flights meant MacKenzie was demoted to smaller planes. Then the husband and father of four was shipped Nov. 7 to the Middle East to fly F-16s as a member of the Air Force National Guard. Three days before he left, MacKenzie spoke with Register correspondent Wayne Laugesen.

Are you angry about the loss of Jason Dahl? Do you wonder how God could let something like this happen to your close friend and colleague?

No, I'm not angry about it. I'm asked this frequently: “How can a living God let things like this happen?” Well, God would allow it precisely because he loves us. God gave us free will, and with that comes the ability to choose between good and evil. There were men on that plane who chose evil. They may have thought this is what Allah wanted them to do, but they were mistaken. Perhaps their idea of good had been twisted, but they chose evil. Do I get mad about this? No. I say, “Thank you God, for choice, so we can choose good.”

You're going off into hostile territory to fly an F-16 — an advanced war machine designed to kill people and destroy their property. The Catholic faith values life, order and peace. How do you reconcile your Catholic faith with your role as a sophisticated warrior capable of dropping bombs that can kill hundreds, or even thousands of humans, at once?

There is such as thing as a just war.

I like to compare my role in the F-16 to the role of a police officer carrying a gun on hostile streets. A police officer sees someone committing a crime and threatening people, and he raises his gun and says “drop it,” and then makes an arrest. If the same criminal refuses to drop it, the police officer is probably going to shoot him in order to save the lives of innocent victims.

Osama bin Laden killed people when he orchestrated the bombing of the Word Trade Center in 1993, and when he financed and organized subsequent terrorist acts up to and including the events of Sept. 11. We know now that this man is not going to stop killing. He's not going to obey our order to drop the gun. I'm the police officer who now has to raise his gun in order to kill the bad guy, if the opportunity were to arise, in order to stop him from killing again.

The bad part is that when I drop a bomb from 25,000 feet and it hits the wrong target, say the Chinese Embassy in Kosovo — because intelligence messed up on the ground — then innocent people die. And that's an unfortunate function of modern warfare that we do everything possible to avoid.

Yes, but Scripture, and the Catholic Church, teaches us that all life is created by God and is therefore valuable and sacred. How can you drop bombs that kill, even if you're dropping them only on the enemy?

These people are targeting innocents. The only way to stop them is to get rid of them, and we need to let the world know that we won't tolerate murderous aggression precisely because life is sacred.

Yes, Osama bin Laden was created by God, but he apparently decided to turn away from God. The rabid dog was also created by God, and when you kill a rabid dog, you're killing. But you're killing so that others might live. Osama bin Laden may be an evil killer, but he's still a creation of God and is no less valuable of a human being to God than are other human beings. And that's why even he can be forgiven by God.

When Jesus was on the cross, one of the sinners on a cross mocked Jesus. The other sinner asked Jesus to forgive him, and Jesus did so right on the spot. Osama bin Laden can be forgiven. But right now he's killing people and we have a moral obligation to stop him.

When you're up there in an F-16, putting your life and the lives of others on the line, do you pray? Do you talk to God at all during that time?

No, honestly I don't. I'm too busy just trying to keep the plane in the air and carrying out the mission. I can't pray while I'm doing that. But in 1991 I saw a fellow pilot hit the water in the Atlantic Ocean, near Atlantic City (N.J.). He hit the water at 600 knots and the plane disinte-grated. He just pulled too many Gs (G forces) and lost his ability to control the plane. We were flying so low that he didn't have time to eject before hitting the water.

I did some praying on the way home that day.

Do you think the Taliban have any just complaints against the United States and our culture?

The saddest thing about all of this is that we don't understand Osama bin Laden better than we do, and that we don't understand much about Arabic culture. We, as a nation, haven't spent the time and the money to understand them. Afghanistan is the most impoverished country in the world, and we know very little about it.

Should the Catholic Church have been doing more to reach out to impoverished Muslims in the Middle East? Should we do more now?

The ultimate goal of Christians should not be to make a kingdom on earth, but to accept the gift of the Kingdom that awaits us in heaven. So the Church isn't here to solve all problems on earth, but to help us stay in relationship with God. Nevertheless, Catholics do a tremendous amount to better distribute God's gifts throughout the world. But it's not possible, in a free world, to fix all that is wrong.

Tell me a little about your friend Jason Dahl, who was attacked by hijackers while flying his 767 over Pennsylvania.

I went to Jason's memorial service in Littleton (Colo.), and it was amazing how important he was to so many people.

Friends and neighbors all talked about him as the guy you called if you had a problem, because he could fix anything — your car, your plumbing, whatever. He was so devoted to his wife and son that the people from the scheduling office in Chicago knew him personally, and they came to the service. They knew him because he was always hanging out in the scheduling office trying to finesse his schedule in such a manner that he could optimize the amount of time he could spend with his family.

At one point during the service, his 15-year-old son got up and gave a talk in front of 2,000 people. When he said “good night, Dad,” there wasn't a dry eye in the place. Jason Dahl had a wonderful life.

On Nov. 11, just days before leaving for the Middle East, you got up in front of your fellow Catholic parishioners to tell them of the need to tithe in a strict way. You've been demoted and your job is on the line, with United and all other airlines in jeopardy. People are seeing their loved ones — including you — being shipped off to the Middle East. The welfare of the national economy is in precarious limbo. Unemployment is rising, and a growing number of people in your church are losing their high-tech jobs. Is this an appropriate time to be asking people to give away 10% of their earnings?

Yes, it's a particularly opportune time. Sept. 11 was a wakeup call for all Americans. It made people say, “I'm glad to be alive.” It made people give thanks for simply being able to come home at the end of the day and hug their spouses and children.

Extraordinary events lead ordinary people to do extraordinary things.

I'm seeing a country full of people who are taking inventory of all that God has given them and saying “thanks.” I've flown about 60 hours for United since Sept. 11, and you know what I'm seeing for the first time ever? People are being nice to flight attendants. They're being courteous, polite and respectful.

Good can come out of these tragic times. In fact, greatness can come out of these times. It's an excellent time to start tithing, because if you still have anything, anything at all, you can afford to give.

To whom much is given, much is expected.

Wayne Laugesen writes from Boulder, Colorado.