going shoppingIn this current series of posts, begun here, I am trying to recall for us, as individuals and as a nation, what we were thinking on September 11, 2001 and in the days and weeks immediately following. As I have been writing this I have been wondering about how many people can actually recall how “the apocalyptic acts of fury” (Kanan Makiya) impacted them as individuals, and I have been thinking about the jumble of mixed messages that we were getting as a nation.

Further still were the selective ways that the White House and Congress chose to deal with the crisis. We are experiencing the ramifications of many of those decisions today, 12 years later, and I want us to consider the wisdom of these decisions in future posts. But here I want to talk about the jumble of mixed messages, which were pulling us is all sorts of different directions.

As individuals, we would never be the same – or so we said. Suddenly life was fragile and personal problems trivial. We would change – or so we promised ourselves, if not others. Such humility even from many talking heads was as refreshing as it was astounding. Those days, you could hardly watch seasoned journalists or foreign policy experts being interviewed and not hear them stop to recount an epiphany about why they would now be more caring toward family and others. Even interviewers would stop to say this about themselves. Not a few were even heard questioning cherished beliefs they held about God and the human race. The same was heard among us lesser mortals. We would no longer be selfish, or rude, or frivolous, or materialistic, or decadent. We would be warm not cold, real not pretentious, loving not ill-willed. We had changed.

Another message was that of war. The nation was at war, President George W. Bush announced to us and the world, a war on terrorism. “Our enemy,” the president explained, “is a radical network of terrorists, and every government that supports them…. And we will pursue nations that provide aid or safe haven to terrorism.  Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” Well, then, here was another way in which life would be different. But how, precisely?

globe above waterFurther, many thoughtful people were arguing that to describe the terrorist acts of 9/11 as an act of war might be a category mistake, and so we should be very careful, here, because the attacks were not carried out by a nation but by a militant group of non-state actors known as al Qaeda and led by Osama bin Laden, a terrorist and not the leader of a nation. As this argument went, a more useful metaphor than war is crime and, despite the enormity of the attack and the damage and loss of life, dealing with bin Laden and al Qaeda should be a police matter for the international community.

What was it, then, an act of war or a heinous crime? Deciding between the two would determine what response was just and what kind of sacrifices the nations would need to make. Either way, we all knew, carried with it some clearly dreadful implications about buckling up for the abnormal life that seemed sure to lie just ahead for us. Yet there was another message still. This message not only contradicted that of any sacrifices we were sure were now going to demanded of us by our leaders; it also subtly communicated that collective introspection and conversation about American itself, which had been slowly and cautiously emerging, should end.

President George W. Bush, who, in the days immediately following the attacks said and did some smart things, was also saying that America was “open for business” and asking for everyone’s “continued participation and confidence in the American economy.” At most other times, such rhetoric would go down well enough. But when heard during those days it was interpreted by many people, rightly or wrongly, as a call to “get back to normal” and “go shopping.” Pardon? The Times of London called the attack The Day that Changed the World. Yet we are to get back to normal? Are we being told to ignore the “war on terrorism” that had suddenly been declared and go shopping?

Thoughtful religious and non-religious commentators saw through that rhetoric. Here are just two poignant examples. Brian Walsh, Christian Reformed chaplain of the university of Toronto, in an editorial in re-generation, put it this way:

“America is open for business. Does this sounds like a callous and irrelevant comment under such circumstances? Not at all. You see, the forces of chaos will not triumph because the forces of salvation are stronger. And salvation is found in an ever expanding global economy…. The president knows, his cabinet knows, the guy on the street knows, and we all know, deep down, that things will never be the same again.”

The writer Susan Sontag penned this in The New Yorker:

“Our leaders are bent on convincing us that everything is O.K…. But everything is not O.K…. The unanimity of the sanctimonious, reality-concealing rhetoric spouted by American officials and media commentators in recent days seems, well, unworthy of a nature democracy…. Let’s by all mean grieve together. But let’s not be stupid together. ‘Our country is strong,’ we are told again and again. I for one don’t find this entirely consoling. Who doubts America is strong. But  but that’s not all America has to be.”

Story continue next post….

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Image by r.nial.bradshaw (permission via Creative Commons)


extreme kayakingThe scene that greeted us at Atlanta’s Hartsfield International Airport was as inappropriate as it was bizarre. At least to me it was. It took me by complete surprise. The comfortable numbness of the grace giving that I had experienced for four days while encamped at Shearwater Air Force Base had been replaced by deeply troubled feelings an hour earlier as we flew over the smoldering ruins where once the Twin Towers stood. I had become pensive and on edge and in no mood for a party. But a party it was that greeted us inside Hartsfield.

The large WELCOME HOME banner would have been enough, but no. As we lugged our tired selves and baggage into the main terminal, a large crowd began cheering and applauding. I looked around to see why but saw nothing unusual. And then it hit me. CNN and a knot of newspaper reporters were shoving cameras and microphones in our direction. Apparently some public officials were also present, given the hugging, glad-handing, and back-slapping given to the passengers who got caught up in the contrived celebration. I wanted no part and slipped quietly past.

Finally back home, I slid into a mild depression and could not concentrate on my work. I had to postpone a speaking engagement in Kansas City and get editorial permissions to push two writing deadlines further into the future. All I could think about was “Tuesday’s monstrous dose of reality” (Susan Sontag) and it left me searching for a metaphor by which I could talk to myself about what I was then strangely feeling. Here it is.

I rode out those early days like a person suddenly caught in a horrifying experience of extreme kayaking – someone who should not have been kayaking in the first place. I think it was like this for many Americans. We were plunging wildly downstream, alone with our own thoughts. Identifiable shoreline quickly receded as we dodged boulders and sped into regions unknown, spray hitting us in the face as we strained to remain upright amidst the fierce rapids, the ride taking us farther and further. Wherever each of us finally made shore, no one was sure where he or she had been deposited. Little ground appeared recognizable. What’s this? What’s that over there? And over here? History itself seemed to have split in two. Even today people, with conviction, still talk about “pre-” and “post-” 9/11 worlds.

Although rivers leave no footprints, they do leave a watery trail. Leaving it, I too made my way ashore in my own sorrow and amazement, and with deeply disturbing questions that were not being answered. On the morning of September 11, 2001, vaunted symbols of American wealth, power, and prestige were destroyed and damaged, nearly 3,000 persons died, families mourned, and we stared disbelievingly, as did the rest of the world, even those who then erupted into applause.

“Summer had ended in America,” Jonathan Alter wrote in Newsweek. “Apocalyptic acts of fury” (Kanan Makiya) had shaken the nation. You felt that. And it left you feeling that life was somehow now going to be quite different, but no one knew just how. This was complicated by the jumble of mixed messages we were telling ourselves, as individuals, as a nation.

Story continued next post…..

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Image by Robbie’s Photo Art (permission via Creative Commons)


camerasIf you would have developed a picture of we stranded passengers at Shearwater Air Force Base – one thousand of us – you would have seen a ridiculously diverse encampment – Scots, English, French, Germans, Americans, Africans; blacks, whites, Asians, Indians; Canadian Air Force and Navy officers; males, females, children, teens, adults, marrieds, singles.

What really stood out to me during our four days together on the base was that our large, diverse flock did not let political persuasion, economic standing, or religious belief prevent us from pulling together to create a degree of flourishing in the crisis. Of course always there seems to be a squeaky wheel. But those days I was aware of only one person who caused a public stink, demanding changes to his situation that everyone agreed were completely unreasonable.

In Christian terms, giving grace to one another became our norm. This began while we were cooped up on the plane for fourteen hours on the tarmac after the emergency landing in Halifax, which I wrote about in the previous post. I also wrote, here, about how generously the Canadian military and the Dartmouth families and schools provided for us at Shearwater. But we passengers also looked after one another as best we could with the limited resources we had to hand. Here are a some vignettes.

For the first two days at Shearwater, giving grace often consisted simply in encouraging the disappointed strandeds. Narratives abounded even between the unlikeliest of persons. A shy 19-year old student from Oxford kneels beside the cot of a lonely 40-year old Kenyan woman, befriending and comforting her. Reverend Matthews and his wife counsel young newlyweds, whose honeymoon had been interrupted by the crisis. A middle-aged man from the States strolls the grounds alongside a twenty-something au pair from France, listening to her worries. A 25-year-old designer from Germany encourages a 60-year-old CEO from England, while they are queuing for dinner. A lone stranded emerges from the cafeteria line carrying a tray of food but can’t find an empty table; two Canadian Navy Lieutenants notice and make room for him at their table.

Everyday, small knots of people from different countries and races could be found sitting together on the lawn outside the gym or one of the barracks, catching some rays, passing time together, sharing their histories, exchanging contact info. Thursday morning I remembered that I knew a pastor who lived in Halifax. We had spent time together in Romania years’ earlier. Somehow I found his phone number. We met later that day at the base and he brought his Norelco – my first shave since Tuesday morning in London.

Individualism, selfish interest, and perceptions of inequality had somehow been transformed into opportunities for the kind of self-denial and cooperation among the different that gives witness to human unity in its diversity. A depth of compassion and caring had been awakened in us that I don’t think we knew was latent within us. Heaven seemed to have had broken in to our little world, collapsing barriers between races, professions, classes, and nationalities. Strangers became good neighbors. As a Christian, I understood that we were being allowed to taste something of the sweet saving grace of God.

Twin Towers smokingThe most stunning symbol of the transformation, to me, appeared on the plane itself during our three-hour flight on Saturday, September 15, when the FAA finally cleared us to fly from Halifax to Atlanta. Now I have flown considerably, and, not long after takeoff, it has always, but always, been the case that those long, dark curtains that separate first class from economy are always pulled closed. “Stay out!” But the dark blue curtains on this flight were left open. “Class” was not in the air with us. What we had gained on the ground was.

For the flight to Atlanta from Halifax, we no-longer-strandeds had not been given assigned seating. We were just left to it. Upon boarding we quite naturally returned to the seats we had been assigned on the flight from London the morning of September 11. On the flight to Atlanta, however, when we reached cruising altitude, we did get the obligatory announcement that we were “now free to move about the plane.” But that now had a completely new meaning. We were free to roam the entire plane. It gave a new take on “classless society.”

Relationships begun on the ground continued in the air as passengers searched out their new friends. The good neighborliness – between the well-heeled and the pedestrian and the flight crew – quite naturally sustained itself in the air. I don’t think that the ritual “pulling of the veils” – symbolic of old barriers – even occurred to the fight attendants. Our new reality needed a symbol: the open curtains.

See me, then, seated in first class peering out through a porthole at another gorgeous morning sky, bright and clear. Captain Williams is flying us down the Atlantic Seaboard and he now lets us know that we are starting to pass over Manhattan. I look closely and see, even now, on the fifth day, long plumes of smoke spiraling toward us from the huge, gray crater. Ground Zero. Nee: the World Trade Center. Time slows to a crawl. I take a photo and then stare at the ascending trails of tears until I could them longer see. So, it really had happened.

Story continued next post…..

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Image by alexkerhead (permission via Creative Commons)