Iran Is the New Iraq: Why That’s Big

History is about to rhyme. Here’s how. And why you don’t want it to.

During 2002 and into early 2003, the American public, U.S. allies, and the rest of the world were treated to more than a year of strongly worded statements cherry-picked from U.S. intelligence communities by the George W. Bush administration and sophisticatedly spun together into a policy for acting to stop Saddam Hussein from deploying chemical and biological weapons and to prevent him from starting a nuclear program. That policy led to the U.S. war in Iraq.

Today, in 2017, fifteen years later, the cherry picking and policy spin begins again. This time with Iran. This time, about pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal. Yet the consequences this time may be no less severe than those that have materialized since the “Mission Accomplished” banner hung above the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln.

During his campaign for the presidency, Donald Trump repeatedly criticized the nuclear agreement with Iran, which is formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). As President he has been asking his advisors for a way to get the U.S. out of the deal. Since none have as yet been forthcoming, at least not to Trump’s satisfaction, he has twice this year recertified Iran’s compliance with the agreement, most recently on July 18. (In May, 2015, Congress passed the Iran Nuclear Review Act, by which Congress receives ongoing reports about Iran’s behavior regarding nuclear agreement compliance; the Act also requires recertification by the President every 90 days.)

But this President is not one to be deterred from a stated goal. Although Iran has not been in material breach of the agreement, game plans are being presented for the President to act on to pull the U.S. out of the deal even if the Islamic republic is not in material breach.

According to foreign policy analyst and Iranian expert Trita Parsi, one of those game plans entails decertifying the deal if Trump can justify a claim that Iran is not implementing it. That certainly would be fair enough if Iran were caught in material breach of the deal. But as of this summer, Iran has not been in material breach, as Bob Corker, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, affirmed on July 26. In an interview with David Ignatius, Corker, who remains adamantly opposed to the deal, pointed out that there are technical breaches and material breaches. “[It’s the] material breaches that matter. Well, right now, they’ve had some technical non-compliance but they get back into compliance from time-to-time.” In other words, the President needs Iran to get caught in a material breach in order to argue with a straight face that Iran is not implementing the deal. Then he can legitimately decertify.

The obstacle for Trump has been that Iran has been implementing the deal but he wants to tear it up. So what to do? Find a way to claim justification for decertifying the deal anyway. Parsi learned of one rationale which would do just that. It would involve using “the spot-inspections mechanism of the nuclear deal … to demand access to a whole set of military sites in Iran. Once Iran balks … Trump can claim that Iran is in violation, blowing up the nuclear deal while shifting blame to Iran.” And Iran will balk, because “the mechanism is only supposed to be used if tangible evidence exists that those sites are being used for illicit nuclear activities.” In other words, the agreement does not allow for fishing expeditions.

This would be a “charade,” Parsi writes, “a rerun of the machinations that resulted in the Iraq war. It doesn’t matter what Iran does or doesn’t do….” Trump is not interested in “determining whether Iran is in compliance or not. The administration is committed to finding a way to claim Iran has violated the accord, regardless of the facts – just as George W. Bush did with Iraq.”

“Shifting blame to Iran” is essential to any game plan for end-running the deal if the United States hopes to get its allies behind America’s exiting of the deal. This is what Corker himself wants. You “wait until you have your allies aligned with you.” Then you ask “to get into various facilities in Iran. If they don’t let us in, boom. [W]hat you want is you want the breakup of this deal to be about Iran. You don’t want it to be about the United States because we want our allies with us.”

John Bolton, another high-level foreign policy advisor, absolutely does not want the deal to continue. In a telling article in National Review titled “How to Get Out of the Iran Deal,” the former U. S. Ambassador to the UN recently laid out a detailed, five-page game plan for the kind of spin we can expect to hear from the White House and the media in the following weeks and months. Bolton, who calls the Iran nuclear deal “execrable,” was asked in July by Steve Bannon, then Trump’s chief White House strategist, “to draw up just such a game plan…, which I did.” It’s a strategy, Bolton states, “that can be readily expanded to a comprehensive, hundred-page playbook if the administration were to decide to leave the Iran agreement.” Note the meaning of that carefully crafted sentence. Bolton, who has also served at high levels in various presidential administrations since the 1980s, is no stranger to spin. He is not saying: here is a just case for pulling out of the agreement. He’s saying: if you [Trump] pull out when Iran is not in material breach, here’s how to spin your decision.

Under four subheadings – Background; Campaign Plan Components; Execution Concepts and Tactics; Conclusion – Bolton’s argument through all four sections may be summed up as: here’s how to pull out all the stops in a domestic and global campaign to get as many influential agencies, allies, and media as possible on board to support “a decision not to certify and to abrogate the JCPOA.” His ways and means include, but are not limited to:

■ developing momentum in Congress for pulling out,
■ diplomatic and public education initiatives,
■ early and quiet consultation with key players,
■ explaining why the deal is harmful to U.S. national security interests,
■ a full court press by U.S. embassies worldwide,
■ coordinating with all relevant Federal agencies,
■ the timing of announcements,
■ having unilateral U.S. sanctions against Iran ready to be implemented,
■ encourage public debate that goes further than abrogating the deal,
■ announcing U.S. support for the democratic Iranian opposition,
■ expedite delivery of bunker-buster bombs,
■ and actively organize opposition to Iranian political objectives in the UN.

Bolton expands on the “how” of those and other strategies throughout his article. “This effort,” he concludes, “should be the Administration’s highest diplomatic priority, commanding all necessary time, attention, and resources.”

If Iran continues to implement the deal but Trump remains firm about tearing it up, we should be prepared to face a deluge of what the distinguished foreign policy thinker John Mearsheimer calls, in his insightful little book Why Leaders Lie, “a deception campaign.” This, he argues, is based on fearmongering, which “occurs when a state’s leaders see a threat emerging but think that they cannot make the public see the wolf at the door without resorting to a deception campaign.”

“History may not repeat itself,” Mark Twain has been noted to have said, “but it sure does rhyme.” If we draw from the deception campaign of 2002, it’s not hard to divine what kind of rhyming statements, i.e., sound bites, are going to be hawked by the White House and Congress in the coming weeks and months. Here are some likely ones:

■ Of all of Obama’s wrongheaded policies, none is more dangerous to the US that the Iran deal. This has left the President with confronting a terrible threat in the Persian Gulf…
■ Obama, Kerry, and others in that administration were naive to think that Iran doesn’t want nuclear weapons…
■ The time has come to pull out of the deal…
■ We have clear evidence that Iran is not abiding by the nuclear deal…
■ Congressional leaders are united in their view that Iran will…
■ The only way to stop Iran from having nuclear weapons is to pull out of the deal and place very tough US sanctions on Iran…
■ The Iran deal has not deterred it from pursuing paths to have nuclear weapons….
■ We support the President to pull out of the deal…
■ We are confident that Iran is seeking means to build a nuclear weapon…
■ If we do not pull out of the Iran deal and enact very strict sanction immediately…
■ Iran had no intention of honoring the agreement….

It is foolish to try to predict what the next fifteen years will look like should such sound bites about Iran succeed, but if they succeed it is equally foolish to assume that consequences at home and in the Middle East will be less severe than they have been during the past fifteen years. Even if the American public only wants ponder its future on the basis of its collective self-interest, it may want to consider what would occur in the oil markets if Iran, in retaliation, not only disrupted the flow of oil out of the Persian Gulf but attacked the oil refineries in Saudi Arabia. And here we find another lesson from fifteen years ago.

Despite the Bush administration’s unprecedented, multi-aspected spinning throughout 2002 to try to assure everyone of the wisdom of invading Iraq, the President still had many significant doubters, at home and overseas. To try to convince them to have faith, Bush would occasionally trot out what he called the success of the U.S. policy in Afghanistan. After all, he would say, al Qaeda had been routed, the Taliban government had been ousted, and Hamid Karzai, the new President of Afghanistan, was cooperating with the West.

Well, now. The war in Afghanistan is in its sixteenth year, there is no end in sight, suicide bombings are common, the Afghans are fed up with burying their dead, the Taliban have regained strong holds in many places, the government only rules about 60% of the country, and more U.S. troops are being deployed there.

Some may say: well, that’s hindsight; we want to look forward. Sure, let’s look forward. But you won’t move forward wisely apart from applying wisdom learned from past mistakes. The decision not to finish the job with al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan but to instead go to war in Iraq is at least partly implicated in the terrible, ongoing suffering of countless millions of Afghans, Iraqis, and Syrians. And the decision has also cost the U.S. dearly in many ways, both domestically and internationally. The American public knows this. What they may not know in the coming weeks and months is that they may be being played again.

Talking to Iran is what’s needed. This, too, is another lesson to be learned from the Bush era. Well-known among the foreign policy establishments of the West and the Middle East, but virtually unreported by the news media, the Iranian government sent a formal diplomatic letter to the Bush administration in May, 2003, seeking the start of direct high-level talks on a wider array of issues crucial to improving the bilateral relations.

Parsi helpfully included a copy of the letter as an Appendix in his illuminating book Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran, and the U.S. The Iranians, he writes, had prepared a comprehensive proposal. It had been drafted and known only to a closed circle of decision-makers in Tehran and approved by the highest levels of clerical and political authorities, including Ayatollah Ali Khamanei, the supreme leader, who has the final say in all matters of state.

Apart from Khamanei’s imprimatur, the proposal would not be taken seriously by the Bush White House. Most significantly, then, the proposal was authoritative. Thus the Americans, Parsi writes, were stunned by it. The proposal called for a dialogue of “mutual respect” and listed major points of contention that Iran was willing to discuss with the U.S. In the letter, Iran declared itself willing to:

■ talk about its nuclear program;
■ increase its cooperation with the U.S. on al Qaeda;
■ help stabilize Iraq;
■ lean on Hezbollah “to become a mere political organization within Lebanon”;
■ accept the Arab League’s Beirut Declaration for a two-state solution.
■ end Iranian “material support to Palestinian opposition groups” (Hamas, Islamic Jihad, et al.) and pressure them “to stop violent action against civilians.”

Of course bilateral negotiations are a two-way street, so the proposal also spelled out what Iran would like to see on the table in return from the U.S.:

■ the removal of Iran from the “axis of evil”;
■ an end of sanctions and impediments to international trade;
■ “full access to peaceful nuclear technology”;
■ recognition of “Iran’s legitimate security interests in the region”;
■ U.S. help against anti-Iranian terrorists.

The letter closed by suggesting mutual next steps, including public statements, establishing parallel working groups, and hammering out a timetable for implementation. Since Washington and Tehran had had no embassy-level bilateral relations for a quarter of a century, the offer was unprecedented. How would the Bush administration respond?

Stop and think about this for a minute. As with all initial steps toward diplomacy, this one was but a starting point. Both sides would know that the proposal was not set in stone. It was merely the potential beginning of the international game of give-and-take of getting to Yes. But first the waters needed to be tested by both parties. If they liked the temperature, then some next steps might include discussing some of the items. If that process continued, long story short, items and issues in the original proposal would probably hit the cutting room floor, with the potential remaining that some items might be taken to an agreement, even if that took months or years to hammer out.

Given the unprecedented nature of the proposal, it would be an exceptionally irrational move if the recipient did not engage with the sender to at least test the waters. Not only did the Bush White House choose not to do that. It immediately and rudely snubbed the reachout. “An opportunity for a major breakthrough had been willfully wasted,” Parsi concluded. Larry Wilkerson, Secretary of State Colin Powell’s chief of staff at the time, believed the mistake was huge. According to BBC News security correspondent Gordon Corera, Wilkerson afterward said, “In my mind, it was one of those things” about which you say “I can’t believe we did this,” especially at a time when Iranian vulnerability was at its greatest and Washington at its most triumphalist. That snub looms large in how Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the radical fundamentalist politician, became Iran’s president in 2005, and also why it became so difficult, and took so many years of trying, to get Iran to the negotiating table for its nuclear program.

President Trump’s willingness to tear up the Iran nuclear deal seems to stem from his anger at the Islamic republic’s ongoing support of Hezbollah, its attitude toward Israel, and its ballistic missile program. But the way to seek changes in Iran’s behavior that would benefit the United States is through diplomatic initiatives that seek to talk with Iran about areas of concern to both countries. A huge obstacle to that today, however, is that, as in 2002, we have a White House that doesn’t want to talk but to dictate to Iran.

Of course the Iran nuclear deal is not a perfect deal. Nothing done by humans in this world is. And no future deals with Iran, or with any other state, will be perfect either. It would be unwise in the extreme, however, and harmful to America, for a U.S. president not to put honest, serious, and concerted efforts into trying to build diplomatic relations with Iran. The JCPOA can be a springboard for that. It gives the P5+1 nations a verifiable framework for monitoring Iranian compliance. It give the U.S. many years to talk with Iran about other matters. And it comes at a time when Iran has recently re-elected a president who is open to talking.

For Trump, Corker, Bolton, and many other influentials, the strategy seems to be: tear up the deal and enact very tough sanctions, which will force Iran to negotiate a better deal. I don’t believe that pulling out of the Iran nuclear agreement will, as Bolton wrote, create “a new reality” that will “enhance international peace and security.” I don’t believe America’s allies – possibly there will be a few exceptions – will buy that either. Pulling out would certainly create a new reality. I would be very surprised if it did not rhyme with the reality that emerged during the last decade and a half. If it does emerge, it will be yet another case of wisdom lost.

Diplomats and negotiators have a lot of wisdom and President Trump should give them carte blanche to start reaching out to Iran. As one of the biblical kings has reminded us, after he saw peace ensue from an unlikely diplomatic mission, “wisdom is better than weapons of war.”

We can learn wisdom from history or remain foolish decision makers. If the Trump White House refuses to get wisdom from the mistakes made by the Bush White House, God help us.

©2017 by Charles Strohmer

Images permissions from Creative Commons: Geo. W. Bush (BBC News); Donald Trump (Drew Angerer/Getty Images); John Bolton (Jack Guez/AFP/Getty); Afghanistan war scene (Javed Tanveer/AFP/Getty); President Rhouani (STR/AFP/Getty);

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Strangers As Good Neighbors

A word about the following essay
The succor and largesse being given to those whose lives have been devastated by Hurricane Harvey turned my thoughts to five remarkable days when I was unexpectedly on the receiving end of it, with thousands of others. I share the following essay with you at this time in the hope that it inspires some good thoughts about what it means to be humans beings bearing witness to the image of God in us.

Strangers As Good Neighbors

Three hours out of London and flying uneventfully through florescent blue sky six miles above the Atlantic, the passengers aboard Delta Flight 59 were digesting their lunches, quietly absorbed in laptops, or reading novels. Others fell drowsily captive to that vespertine atmosphere created on planes when the movies are running. Other than departing Gatwick 30 minutes late, at Noon (7 a.m. EDT), the only bother aboard the plane so far could now be heard in hushed buzz of passengers asking why all the video screens had suddenly gone blank. “The movies should be back on in a few minutes,” an air hostess said over the intercom. “A computer needs re-booting. It happens. We apologize for the inconvenience.”

Yawn. Passengers stretched, ordered drinks, queued for toilets. Someone across the aisle from me lifted his porthole shade and broke the spell of counterfeit evening. My eyes adjusting to the blinding light, I was overwhelmed. The bright blue evanescence, which I once heard a pilot call “severe clear,” stretched out into forever. It hurt your eyes to gaze at that way for too long and I turned away. Twenty minutes passed. The Boeing 777 droned on. Still no movies. People fidgeted. Five hours to go before touchdown in Atlanta.

Suddenly everyone’s attention locked on to the Texas drawl coming from the intercom. “Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. May I have your attention. Your serious attention.” The dreaded words. Your nightmare sprang from wherever you had stowed it before boarding. No one spoke. No one dared. We’re going down. Afterward, it seemed to me that a holy moment spread throughout the cabin.

It also seemed much longer than the actually millisecond it took before Captain William’s steady but troubled Texas drawl continued: “There’s been a major incident in the United States and all air space throughout the nation has been closed. All planes in the air in the United States are being directed to land at the nearest airports, and all international flights into the U.S. are being diverted. We are okay. I repeat. We are okay. But we cannot land in the U.S. We will be landing in Halifax, Nova Scotia in about two hours. We can’t give you any more information at this time. Please be patient and bear with us. We will have more details for you when we get on the ground in Halifax. Thank you for your cooperation.”

Like synchronized swimmers on cue, passengers turned to face their seat-neighbors. Whispers arose. What do you think it is? Who knows? Maybe that announcement was just a ploy and we’re really going down? Must have been a huge earthquake? No, a nuclear bomb. Maybe the air traffic control system has failed? Does the captain even know what’s going on?

None of that made any sense to me. The important question was: why had the FAA closed all the airports? I had to find out. Knowing would help me beat back worst-case-scenario self-talk. I quickly calculated to Eastern Daylight Time and realized that my wife would be in class with her first-graders. But how could I even be sure of that? Was she safe? That became an even more important question. What had happened, anyway?! And where? And who had been effected? Was I even going to get home? Someone must know.

inside delta planeAhh. Walking down the aisle toward me was the hostess whom I had befriended on the plane. I was traveling alone and no passengers were seated near me. I decided to try to take advantage of that privacy. From my aisle seat our eyes met and I motioned inconspicuously to flag her down, hoping she would stop. She did, and she crouched to listen. “I know you can’t tell me what happened, even if you know,” I whispered, “and I’m not asking you to. But can you at least tell me, does the crew know what’s happened?” She nodded discreetly, stood, and then continued on her errand at the back of the plane. It was something, a least. A kindness. The first of many that was to come.

Delta Flight 59 became the penultimate of 42 planeloads of international air travelers permitted safe harbor at Halifax International before the tarmac ran out of wing space. As we circled before landing, I was surprised to see the long, asphalt service road jammed with cars, vans, and pick-ups filled with on-lookers. Like bystanders congregating to stare at a blazing warehouse fire, they had queued to watch the emergency landings. Later I realized it was more than that. It wasn’t just the stunning sight of landing dozens of huge commercial jets one after another after another that had brought them out of their homes and businesses that sunny afternoon. They knew what had happened. We were still in the dark.

Taxiing to our place at the end of the long queue of planes, far from the terminal, we slowly eased along past the staring congregation of on-lookers until Captain Williams brought the 777 to a gentle halt. We heard the mic cue. Captain Williams immediately thanked us for our patient cooperation and then provided what details he had been given of the attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. “Hopefully,” he concluded, “they’ll re-open U.S. airspace to get these international flights to their destinations. Hopefully we’ll get out of here in a few hours.”

We asked a thousand questions of the crew, but the only information they had was what Captain Williams had been given, and those details were sketchy. Cell phone service had been turned off as we flew to Halifax, and there were no televisions aboard. Later I realized that during the first couple of hours on the plane in Halifax we were living way behind the historic news curve. The pilots had tuned to an AM radio in the cockpit, a source of constant news about the attacks, ninety percent of it still rumor. “Another attack may be imminent.” “A plane may have crashed in Pennsylvania.” “Who had launched the attack?” It would be nearly 24 hours before our own imaginations would be seared by television images of flying machines, twisted I-beams, and charred bodies crashing, falling, and billowing in the explosive chemistry of terror, dust, and loss.

9/11: 42 commercial passenger jets parked on Halifax International runwayTwo long and perfectly executed lines of 747s, 767s, 777s, Air Buses, and L1011s were now parked side-by-side along the tarmac. None would be flying anywhere for the foreseeable future. Ten thousand stranded passengers – a small town, and all the problems that come with it – had suddenly arrived – a scene repeated across Canada, from Newfoundland to Vancouver. Many trans-Atlantic and trans-Pacific flights had been ordered back to their departure cities.

That the extreme and unprecedented workout demanded of thousands of air traffic controllers across America went without incident is astonishing. The FAA had ordered some 5,000 civilian planes to be landed immediately so that the military could isolate any rogue planes still in the air. Within four minutes, 700 planes had been landed. Nearly 3,000 within the next hour. All 5,000 had been safely guided to the ground in under two hours. An impressive impromptu performance, never once rehearsed in aviation history.

Now free to mill about the entire plane – a gracious gesture itself – I found a spot to stand unobtrusively near the open cockpit door to listen to the scratchy, AM radio signal coming out of Halifax. But there were stories in this cockpit. I decided to put on my journalist’s hat, informally however. I listened closely as flight attendants came to the cockpit with reports from the cabin and as the two pilots and their navigator talked. And I chatted them up when they were free to do so. Personally for me, it was a akin to therapy to have the freedom to do this, and I think the pilots seemed glad to talk.

“Why did you make that kind of announcement over the Atlantic?” I asked Captain Williams during a break in the activity. “Why not just tell us what had happened?” He didn’t hedge. “We’ve got almost sixty years’ experience between us,” he told me. “Personally, we’ve never been in this kind of a situation, but colleagues who have been have told us that, in the air, some passengers may panic when they hear the words ‘terrorist attack’ or ‘hijacking.’ So we talked for a long time about the wisest language to use to describe the urgency but not panic anyone.”

As the hours passed, snacks and water ran low, it was getting stuffy in the cabin, a couple infants needed baby formula, the crew reported, and some passengers wanted a smoke. The main theme was the need for fresh air. Passengers were being deplaned and taken to stay overnight in Halifax in the order of their arrival. It would be many hours, we learned, before those of at the end of the queue would be breathing in fresh air.

Still squeezed into my spot near the cockpit, I listened to nearly sixty years of experience process each problem as it arose wisely resolve it. The Halifax ground crew was notified about our need snacks, bottled water, and infant formula. The rear starboard door would be opened for smokers. “But for those of you who need to smoke,” Captain Williams announced, “please take turns and don’t crowd the area. And try to keep the smoke from filtering into the cabin.”

The want of fresh air was solved when the front starboard door was opened to admit supplies. And then left open. Such gestures, including access to the pilots, made a world of difference in the social microcosm that had begun forming, and that would gain in largess, for the passengers of Flight 59. These seemingly small grace gifts defused the building tensions and made the confines bearable. I later learned that passengers on some of the other carriers had fared as favorably.

gobsmackedThe matter of reaching my wife was pressing in on me, so I surrendered my post near the cockpit and looked for someone who might lend me a phone. But getting as signal was still nearly impossible. Those with phones had been wearing down their fingerprints since landing, punching numbers robotically every few minutes gambling against a busy signal. Few won during those first hours. When the hostess I had befriended told me the battery in her phone had died, I stopped asking anyone for a try and instead struck up a conversation – not about phoning – with a friendly couple who, apparently, had no phone. They introduced themselves as Robert and Georgia Matthews, from Memphis. A Christian minister, he explained that he had been in London for the opening ceremonies of a colleague’s church. As I was explaining that I’d been traveling in England on a book tour, we heard the mic suddenly cue – everyone had become acutely attuned to that sound. Captain Williams announced that the FAA had decided not to reopen U.S. airspace today. “We might be here for a day or two,” he said.

The Matthews and I were digesting this development when Robert’s trouser pocket suddenly began beeping. His daughter in Memphis had been playing phone robotics herself and had finally beat the odds. Voilà! A connection with the outside world. Passengers around us were astounded. After he finished talking to his daughter, he handed me the phone and I gave her my wife’s name and number. An hour or two later she beat the odds again, to say that she had got hold of Linda and explained where I was and that I was okay.

Blessedly, our flight was only half full, which made the seventeen hours we spent on board more tolerable. Around midnight I copped three empty side-by-side seats at the rear of the cabin and stretched out as best I could and entered a fitful sleep. Around 3am, we were quickly deplaned on to the runway, shuttled to the terminal, and sped through customs. Outside the terminal we were immediately escorted through the street-lamp atmosphere to a yellow school bus where, after we had boarded, a local politician jumped in and, standing in the doorway, gave us a warm Canadian welcome to “our friends from the south.” He then announced that we were being taken to Shearwater Air Force Base in Dartmouth, ten miles away, where, “You will be well looked after as guests of Canada,” he concluded, promising with many promises. The persistent question of how long we would be there was met with, “We’re taking it a day at a time.”

Legends in their own time, forty-two winged ghost towns now awaited repopulation on the tarmac, the topic of talk radio, news coverage, and hourly conversations in every Halifax and Dartmouth home. The Shearwater encampment rose to about 750 stranded passengers – two Delta flights besides ours, two British Air, and one Air Tours group from Scotland filled with partying vacationers to Florida. The remaining ten thousand strandeds, we discovered, had been housed across the area in houses, school gyms, and in what remained available of hotel rooms (it was the area’s busy tourist season). Some families who had queued in their cars and vans along the access road had not been there just to gawk but to receive us into their homes. Our time as guests of Canada would become the subject of the PBS documentary “Stranded Yanks,” which aired during the one-year anniversary of 9/11.

I awoke at 7am amid dim lighting and much snoring. My back ached from the stiff cot after only three hours of (broken) sleep. I slipped out from under the blue blanket, sat on the edge of the cot, bent over to touch my toes, stood to loosen other muscles, and then took in the unfamiliar surroundings of the massive gymnasium. From the cot I had procured near a hallway door, before me from wall-to-wall stretched the serried ranks of two hundred others curled up on cots or mattresses in various stages of sleep. A few military personnel and Canadian Red Cross workers were in the hallway, where I also saw two of the stranded carrying large white bath towels, evidently returning from the showers.

Where would I eat? How long would I be here? What would I do for clothes, underwear, a tooth brush, tooth paste, deodorant, a hair brush, my Norelco electric shaver? We had only been permitted to bring our carry-on bags to the Base. My contained a couple books, a yellow pad, pens, folders with the paperwork for my three-week UK itinerary, my phone book, and suchlike.

I grabbed a large white towel and asked directions to the showers. In the long hallway I heard a television blaring in the distance and remembered my wife cautioning me, when we were finally able to connect by phone, about the images I’d be seeing. “You’re going to be shocked.” I was. It was unbelievable. September 12, I realized, had dawned.

What do strangers stuck in crisis do? Although the choice is a simple one, the effect differs as markedly as day from night. They can make their situation worse or they can try to improve it. Somehow we went for the latter. Later I realized, to use a Christian image, that we gave grace to onhelping hande another. It began aboard the 777 with the gestures of the pilots and crew and it spread exponentially at Shearwater. Military personnel had worked for hours to set up the cots, mattresses, and bedding. There were the hot showers, and even earplugs! We were given free roam of the huge Base and use of it televisions, recreational facilities, and movie hall. They fed us three superb meals a day from a large buffet-style restaurant. On our second day there some kind officer opened the officers’ mess to us, where chefs grilled steaks and barbecued chicken outside in a terraced courtyard.

Not to be outdone by the military, the Red Cross workers, teachers, and schoolchildren and their parents from the Tallahassee Community School of Dartmouth joined forces. Throughout the night and into the morning of September 12 – in what I was sure was a combined effort to blow our minds – they had been arriving at the Base carrying many dozens of very large cardboard boxes, which were now arranged on long table in a huge lobby. Toothpaste, toothbrushes, deodorant, shampoo, underwear, hair brushes, mousse, razors. You name it. “Take what you need. It’s our gift to you.” This neighborly grace to strangers really got to me. I was going to write that it made life more normal. But it wasn’t that. Something else was taking place. Life in this world was enjoying a taste heaven.

Navy personnel, brought in just to open up more of the Base and help run it during our stay, gave lifts into town when they went off-duty to those stranded who wanted it. I copped a ride to WalMart to buy some tennis shoes when my feet began aching terribly from meandering around the large Base for hours a day. Even the weather was a grace to us. With the exception of a couple hours one afternoon, blue skies and delightful temperatures helped keep our spirits up. I remember someone joking that “the service” here was so good that, if we were now offered a hotel room, we’d decline it and stay put.

We may have been strangers, but we were also good neighbors. Kathy _____from Salt Lake City told me: “It reminds me of Jesus saying, ‘I was a stranger and you took me in and fed me and clothed me.’” I thought about a time described in the Book of Acts, when communal Christian living was one of “great grace” because everything was shared and so no one lacked any needed thing. And Jesus’ Good Samaritan no longer seemed a mere story to me.

On Wednesday, I remembered that I had the phone number for Leslie McCurdy, a pastor in Halifax whom I had met a year earlier in Romania. I wondered if he was in town. He was. He asked if I needed anything. Are you kidding, I said, this place is like a four star hotel. The next day we met at the Base. He brought his Norelco electric shaver. Bless you, brother.

Afterward I had to admit that there had been a givingness among us that seemed so normal that it judged the way I did “normal” life back home. The community of Halifx-Dartmouth had expressed to us strandeds something durable of the image of God in human beings: the ability to give grace to defeat the deeds even of great evil. Well, we strandeds did our small bit as well. It may have only been to run some errand or carry some message, but we helped each other as we were able. And we struck up friendships with the officers. You may think I’m lying when I add that during our days on the Base, only one of the strandeds raised a stink. He did it so often, and for what most of us considered superficial reasons, that he failed to be taken seriously.

Halifax Nova Scotia AirportI also noticed that we seemed to have entered a curious new relationship to time. I’m tempted to say that time had stopped for us, but that’s too clichéd, besides being inaccurate. Time had not stopped but had somehow been altered. Yesterday, we were busy westerners on tight schedules. Deadlines to meet. Places to be. Lives to lead. Today we had time. Humanly speaking we could thank the FAA for part of this, as the days of our departure kept getting pushed into the future – each new day we were informed that “they” (the FAA) would not be flying us out “today,” or if we would fly “tomorrow.” There was no future beyond the present. There was just today. And within that novel existential period time seemed quite remarkable.

Here’s a for-instance. When people’s paths would cross on the Base, as repeatedly they did, we had time for one another. And you never knew who you were going to run into again, or when, or where. It might be in or outside the gym, in the mess hall or at a barbeque, in a lounge or by a shower locker, or on a path to and from the barracks. Wherever and whenever it occurred, there was time to stop and say with smile,“Oh, hello, again,” and then pick up a previous conversation as if we had all the time in the world. After all, what else was there to do but to get to know each other?

In this new relationship that we had been given with time, narrative abounded, often 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 her. A 25-year-old designer from Germany gets into an animated discussion with a 60-year-old CEO from England in the lunch queue. A middle-aged man from the States strolls the grounds alongside a twentysomething from France and learns what it’s like to be an au pair. Reverend Matthews and his wife comfort young newlyweds from England whose honeymoon had been interrupted. A knot of strangers from different nations and races share their histories with one another while seated on uncomfortable gray plastic chairs in the sun outside the gym. A lone stranded emerges from the cafeteria line carrying a tray of food, but he’s been late to the queue and can’t spot an empty table; two Canadian Navy Lieutenants notice and invite him over. Far beyond any powers of the FAA, however, was the power of heaven, which, I later concluded, must have been the giver of the new relationship with time that I had experienced.

Full disclosure: I noticed a mental habit that was at first hostile to the new time. It revealed itself this way. I would find myself pleasantly absorbed into someone a stranger-turned-neighbor narrative when I would suddenly think I’ve got to go now. But then it would hit me. I don’t have anyplace to go, nowhere to be, I’ve got time. Here was time to get to know the other. Where are you from? Where were you headed? How are you getting on here? Need anything? No? Okay. At the very least, heaven must be like this, as much time as you want to get to know all sorts of people. “Oh, there you are again. Remember when we were talking about….”

At Shearwater, selfish interest, disappointment, and alienation were transformed into opportunities for self-denial, mutual support, and common good among the different. A depth of compassion and caring had been awakened in us that I don’t think we knew we were capable of expressing. It kicked out fear and renewed our faith in the better angels of our nature. When heaven broke in, walls broke down between races, professions, classes, nationalities and human suffering tasted something sweet of the saving grace of God as strangers became neighbors.

There was no more stunning awareness of the transformation than the one that occurred when the FAA finally green-lighted Flight 59 to fly to Atlanta on September 15. During our three-hour flight that Saturday morning, the dark blue curtains that separate the economy seats from business and first class were never pulled. They remained opened for the entire flight.

Twin Towers smokingThe no-longer-strandeds had boarded to their previously assigned seats, but once the Fasten Seat Belt signs were clicked off, the neighborliness that had matured on the ground between people of all classes effortlessly continued in the air. People rose and moved about the plane. Without hint of reproof regarding status or class, people from economy walked into first class and picked up conversations that had been left hanging in the hustle from the Base to the airport. I watched the suits and the blue-jeaned exchanging phone numbers. I’m a frequent flyer and I’ve never seen the ritual “pulling of the veils” suspended before. I really believe that it just never occurred to anyone to revive the old barriers.

And so there I. Having slipped from economy to first class to talk to someone, I eventually sat down by myself and stared out a porthole. It was another gorgeous morning, bright and clear. Captain Williams took us down the Atlantic Coast. Time slowed to a crawl as we flew over New York City and saw, even five days on, plumes of smoke spiraling up toward us from the huge gray crater. Ground Zero; nee: the World Trade Center. I snapped a photo and then stared until I could no longer see the ascending trails of tears. So, it really had happened.

(Shorter versions of this essay were published for the first anniversary of 9/11 in Third Way, September, 2002, and in Crosspoint, Fall 2002, 9/11.)

©2017 by Charles Strohmer

Images in order of appearance: Getty Images. Creative Commons. N/C. CBC News. Magdalena Roeseler. Creative Commons. Creative Commons.

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I’ll be brief

Have we Americans fallen into a condition in which it is now going to take catastrophic domestic events to bring us together? I don’t know. I hope not. What we can all see, however, is that the country pulled itself together to rush to rescue and aid tens of thousands who have been devastated by Hurricane Harvey.

I’m not talking only about government agencies but especially about the countless numbers of volunteers and groups, both those already in the region and those who came from around the country. People of all political persuasions and of all sizes, shapes, and colors are continuing to pitch in to help people of all political persuasions and all sizes, shapes, and colors. Apparently, the massive rescue and relief efforts have seemed so profound that even national news organizations that remain traumatized by the election of Donald Trump are putting out stories about “the greatness of America.”

But the succor and largesse we are witnessing in Texas and Louisiana, and that will continue, is not an exclusively American thing. It’s a human thing. It is a feature inherent in all of us as persons made in the image of God. It takes place around the world all the time, daily, and usually apart from tragedies and disasters.

Despite the bad and the ugly, the good in us is also on tap, and people everywhere listen to the better angels of their nature in acts of self-denial to serve others every day in ways large and small. We need to hear those stories all the time, whether they emerge from tragedies or from ordinary daily life.

©2017 by Charles Strohmer

Image by Scott Olson/Getty Images