The Kindness of Strangers in a World of Pain

Twin Towers laser memorialIt began this way, 35,000 feet above the Atlantic, flying from London to Atlanta:

“The Boeing 777 droned on. 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. Worst nightmares sprung from the fuselage, the overhead compartment, the unconscious –  wherever you had stowed them before boarding. A kind of holy moment spread through cabin. No one spoke. No one dared. It seemed much longer than the 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….’”

With all the reporting of criminal behavior, hate, violence, and terrorist acts that get dished out to us by the media everyday, I thought it would be good to take a break today, on September 11, and reflect on what is possible when we rely on the better angels of our nature to rule our actions. I was blessed to experience this in a hugely moving and inspiring way fifteen years ago over a five-day period that began the morning of another September 11. An essay I wrote about it was later published in magazines in the US and the UK for the one year anniversary of 9/11.

The above quote is from the beginning of that essay, which soon moves from the shocking and frightful to what is redemptively possible from the milk of human kindness in the face of great evil. For five days, I and hundreds of other “strandeds” were cared for by strangers where “selfish interest and alienation were transformed into opportunities for self-denial, cooperation among the different, unity in our diversity. A depth of compassion and caring had been awakened in us that I don’t think we knew we carried within, amid our wood, hay, and stubble. Heaven broke in and walls broke down between races, professions, classes, nationalities. Human suffering tasted something sweet of the saving grace of God as strangers became neighbors.”

If pain and murder is just a click away, why not grace and healing? Just click here to read the full essay.

Image courtesy Creative Commons.

©2016 by Charles Strohmer


vision glassesThe monstrous dose of reality that would soon become known by the iconic shorthand “9/11” plunged America and its leadership into a collective worldview crisis, and many individuals and families suffered terribly as well. Although I did not suffer like many people did, my own experience of 9/11 was so unusual that I felt as if I had experienced it too much but missed it completely. Strange inner dissonance, that. The attack had taken place but I did not know that for many hours. I must have been one of the last people on the planet to learn about it. And when I finally did learn about it, the startling way that happened, and the next four days encamped at Shearwater Air Force Base, made 9/11 seem too much to me.

Despite being well-cared-for at Shearwater, I found it difficult to think, and though I consider myself a person of faith, I found it hard to pray. I often found myself with barely a thought in my head. I was pensive and, back home, became disoriented and could not concentrate to work. I had to postpone a speaking engagement and push two article deadlines further into the future.

But knowing myself, I knew that my only way out of the molasses – my back to “normal” – would be by gaining a good understanding of what had occurred and what responses would be wisest. I had too many questions that I needed answered. To ignore getting the answers would be, for me, like trying to live as if 9/11 had not occurred. And I could not go there. I had to understand. And I wanted to get it right. That would take time, but that path, I knew, would deliver me from the dissonance.

So I set out. I suppose this was quite a natural direction for me to go, given that I am a writer and that writers research their subjects. As well, the timing could not have been better. My seventh book had just come out, a co-author job with John Peck, and I had been wondering what the subject of my next book would be. In the interest of full disclosure, however, I should say that I felt more than a natural compulsion. For this new research and writing project I felt a very strong drive.

I should also say that, at the time, I had little interest in international relations and foreign policy. And I will embarrassingly admit to believing that it would only take several months, perhaps a year, to conduct the necessary research. I was foolishly mistaken about that. The most frequent question I get asked is: What’s going on in the Middle East? Unfortunately, many who ask are impatient. They want sound bites, as if sound bites could faithfully answer the persistent questions that have arisen. It takes time to understand how we got here, and why, and what are some wiser ways ahead. Most people reading this blog don’t have time for that amount of study, so I have done the homework for you, and want to offer it to you here.

Today we do not live in a time such as during the Cold War status quo, during decades when, although the United States and the Soviet Union made life interesting at times, international relations between the two super powers were nevertheless static enough. You pretty much knew what was what. Today, the “war on terrorism,” the war in Afghanistan, and the war about Iraq have not – to put it mildly – fulfilled anything even close to either Western or Middle Eastern expectations.

War is a wretchedly incompetent and perverse agent of change. No West – Middle East status quo has emerged. Instead, unexpected major events continue to surprise, and new violent realities emerge so often that it is impossible to put your finger in the script and conclude, “Ahh, this is where we are at. This is the reality. Now here’s what we can do.” So many analysts talk about “the long war.”

And you can forget about what you have heard on the evening news, or talk radio, or the blogosphere. You are not going to get three minutes of “in depth coverage” in the following posts, or sound bites, or cliches, or stereotypical or polemical answers.

We live in a dangerous period. If we do not know why, really why, and if we do not learn from the missteps, then we cannot formulate wiser ways ahead. I don’t claim infallible answers, but over the course of the next several months I am going to be sharing with you on this blog what I have learned from more than a decade of research, including taking you behind the scenes to hear from key people I have talked with on my travels. The unlearning and relearning has been a surprising journey to clarity. I hope it becomes that for you too.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Image by katerha (permissions via Creative Commons)


map readingToday we have considerable understanding about what occurred on September 11, 2001, and why. We forget that at the time we all grappled in the dark for answers. The irony was palpable. What was being called a defining moment lacked clarity. Why was that? The jumble of mixed messages about the “attack on America” that was coming from Washington and the media those days, and from political analysts and religious leaders, indicated a terrible collective worldview crisis into which the nation had been plunged.

In our more humble moments today, we might be able to remember that America had suddenly been forced to deal with problems so revolutionary and intractable that there was a shaking of the foundations. National life had been going along fairly well for a pretty long period. The Cold War had ended in 1991 and we all hoped for a more durable peace. But suddenly life was no longer normal. Things that had been taken for granted were now being seriously questioned, even by the “experts.”

Although it was refreshing to hear such humility expressed by many political analysts, the hard truth of it was that answers those days were few and far between. A terrible unknown had knocked America off its stride and the nation was scrambling to make sense of what had occurred. The nation was processing one of those (fortunately) rare phenomenon called a national worldview crisis.

In recent posts we have been discussing how deeply the crisis effected our personal lives and worldviews, as individuals. But it was, of course, a collective worldview crisis as well, one that deeply effected Washington as a political entity, despite the public image it put forward as being in control. Washington’s treasured and basic ideas for understanding and responding to such a national emergency had suddenly been called into question, for there had never been one like this one.

It was, in my opinion, worse than that of another attack from the air sixty years earlier – on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese air force. Although that surprised the country and plunged it into a terrible national crisis, it was nevertheless understandable an act of war by one state, Japan, against another state, America. And as such Washington could immediately process what had taken place and lean on the traditional way of response: the war system.

In other words, Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor emerged from the modern way of thinking about war – state versus state. It was easy for that generation both to understand what had occurred and to recognize the kind of response in kind that would follow. America would go to war and was able to do so. Everyone got this. The nation could be mobilized. Washington could be confident that America could effectively meet the challenge.

The attack on the United States from the air sixty years later was not a Pearl Harbor kind of surprise. It came not from a state but from a group of non-state actors called al Qaeda, led by the religious militant Osama bin Laden. It struck the nation with fundamental unknowns on both preparedness and response. This left the President and everyone else uncertain about why it had occurred and how to respond. Significant books have been written about this early period of ambiguity in the White House. It was amid this kind of national worldview crisis that Washington had to try to identify where the rough ride had landed the nation, and what the response should be.

Sans a reliable map by which sense could be made of the attack, or what the wisest response to it should be, I hasten to add that I had some sympathy for the White House, its advisers, and the Congressional committees responsible for America’s national security.

Story continued next post…..

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Image by Ed Yourdon (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)


Halifax Nova Scotia AirportDelta Flight 59 from London to Atlanta became the penultimate of forty-two jet loads of now stranded international travelers being granted safe harbor at Halifax International before the airport ran out of wing space for the huge 747s, 767s, 777s, Air Buses, and L1011s. I later calculated that about 10,000 people had arrived – a small town and all the problems that come with that. The scene from the air as we circled for landing looked as if a child had carefully positioned dozens of huge toy planes in two long rows, nose-to-tail and wingtip-to-wingtip on a long strip of black ribbon.

Still circling, I was also surprised to see that the service road that ran for a mile or more alongside the airport was bumper-to-bumper with cars, vans, and pickups. Like bystanders congregating to stare at a blazing house fire, onlookers had queued to watch the landings. But for them, it wasn’t just the odd sight of forty huge planes from all over Europe landing in close succession. That was not the only thing that had brought them out. They knew what had happened in the States. We did not. They were talking about it. We didn’t know what to talk about.

Similar emergency landings had been repeated across Canada, from Newfoundland to Vancouver, although many trans-Atlantic and trans-Pacific flights headed toward American cities had been ordered back to their departure cities. Across America and Canada, the extreme sudden workout demanded of thousands of air traffic controllers and pilots had the astonishing result of going without incident. 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. A truly impressive impromptu performance, never once rehearsed in aviation history.

Taxiing to the end of the queue, far from the terminal, we eased past the staring congregation of onlookers until Captain Williams brought the 777 to a gentle halt. He cued the mike, thanked us for our “patient cooperation,” and gave us the sketchy details that were available to him. It was now hours after the attack but the news reaching Halifax was still an ambiguity of facts and rumors.

Two hijacked passenger jets had crashed into the Twin Towers, which had collapsed in rubble and dust. Thousands were dead. The Pentagon had been attacked. Hundred were dead. A passenger jet may have crashed in Pennsylvania. Hundreds were dead. Whatever any of that meant. America may be going to war. But against whom?

I’m not even going to try to describe our complete bewilderment. Quite unlike those watching television and getting to hear about the major events sequentially – as they happened, that is, having some breathing space between them to digest what was going on and talk to people about that – we did not have any breathing space. Astonishment upon astonishment piled up on us in seconds as we listened to Captain Williams over the intercom.

There were no televisions to watch on the plane and the crew was relying on information from the tower, from other pilots, and from whatever occasional news reports came over a scratchy, AM radio signal in the cockpit. “Hopefully,” Captain Williams concluded, “the FAA will re-open U.S. airspace to get these international flights to their destinations. So maybe we’ll be able to get out of here in a few hours.”

It was now around 1p.m. Halifax time. At 3 a.m. – fourteen hours later – we were deplaned, hustled through customs, and bussed twenty miles through the cool night air to Shearwater Air Force Base, at Dartmouth, where we would live as guests of Canada until Saturday morning, though that departure date was unknown to anyone at the time. Everyday were told that we would probably be flying home “tomorrow.”

Twin TowersAltogether, about a thousand of us strandeds were now encamped at the Air Force base – two Delta flights besides ours, two British Air flights, and an Air Tours flight filled with Scots who had been on their way to Florida. I was first off the first yellow school bus to arrive at the base. It was 4 a.m. Two hundred of us were walked from the buses to a huge gymnasium, where I soon fell asleep on one of the military cots that had been set up for us in that large facility.

I awoke at 7 a.m. amid dim lighting to the sound of snoring, my lower back aching madly. I slipped from under the dark blue blanket, sat on the edge of the cot, and stretched to touch my toes. I took in the unfamiliar surroundings. Nearly everyone was asleep, but a few souls were shuffling in and out of the gym carrying white bath towels, evidently going to and from the showers. We had only been allowed to take our overhead bags from the plane. I wondered what I would do for fresh clothes, pajamas, underwear, deodorant, a shaver, my hairbrush.

Grabbing a white towel from beneath the cot, I walked into the corridor and leaned against a wall to get my bearings. My shirt and trousers were not too wrinkled, but I needed a shave. Military personnel wandered the long hallway and nodded at me as they passed. I saw Canadian Red Cross workers manning tables down in the lobby and a few strandeds milling about there. They seemed to be rummaging through large cardboard boxes. I heard a television blaring from somewhere and immediately remembered my wife cautioning me on the phone, when I had finally been able to reach her from the plane several hours earlier, about the horrible images I’d see. I would shower first.

It would be nearly twenty hours after the attacks before my imagination would be seared by the never-ending television images of the flying machines disappearing with a metallic burr into the Twin Towers and never coming out, of the intrepid jumpers who leapt hand-in-hand to their deaths rather than be burned alive, of the twisted I-beams crashing and billowing in the explosive alchemy of avi-fuel, office furniture, and the dust of human remains.

It was unbelievable. September 12, I realized, had dawned. Life would be different now. How different I did not know. But different it would be.

Story continued next post…..

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Images by Phil LaCombe & Frank Culbertson respectively (permission via Creative Commons)


Halifax Nova ScotiaThree hours out of London and six miles above the Atlantic flying uneventfully through a brilliant blue sky, the passengers aboard Delta Flight 59 to Atlanta were as contented as possible on a nine-hour flight. The meal service had ended and people were now quietly absorbed in their laptops, reading novels, or drowsily captive to that vespertine atmosphere created on planes when the movies are running. Other than departing Gatwick Airport thirty minutes late, so far so good.

But then all the video screens went blank. A hushed buzz arose as passengers wondered why. Not to worry, an air hostess soon announced. “The movies should be back on in a few minutes. A computer needs re-booting. It happens. We apologize for the inconvenience.”

Yawn. Passengers stretched, some ordered drinks, some queued for the toilets. A few broke the spell of counterfeit evening by sliding up their porthole shades. Outside, the bright blue heavens – pilots call it severe clear – stretched out into forever. It hurt one’s eyes to stare there for too long. Twenty minutes passed. The Boeing 777 droned on. The video screens remained blank. People fidgeted and some wondered why their cells phones had quit working. And then like restless compass needles locking on magnetic north, everyone’s wandering thoughts suddenly fixed on the thick Texas drawl now coming over the intercom.

“Ladies and gentlemen, this is Captain Williams speaking. May I have your attention. Your serious attention. There’s been a major incident in the United States and all air space throughout the country has been closed. All planes in the air over 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 Atlanta. We have been directed to Halifax, Nova Scotia, where we should be landing 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.”

A kind of holy moment filled the cabin as passengers turned to face their seat-neighbors. No one spoke. No one dared. Finally some whispers. What do you think it is? Must have been a huge earthquake? A nuclear bomb, maybe? Who knows? Maybe that announcement was just a ploy and we’re really going down? Maybe the air traffic control system has failed? Does the captain even know what’s going on?

None of these events seemed likely to me, passenger 34G. Even if a nuclear catastrophe had occurred in one part of the country, why had all the airports been closed? What had happened? I had to know. Knowing would at least help me beat back the worst-case-scenario self-talk I now battled. I calculated to Eastern Time and concluded that my wife would be in class with her first-graders. But then how could I be sure about that, if I didn’t know what had happened and where? It had to have been huge, but who had been effected? I was returning home from a demanding three-week book tour and speaking trip. I was completely knackered and just wanted to get home. Was I even going to get home?

Someone on this plane must know. Because I usually travel alone on these long flights, I like to make a connection with a flight attendant after I board. It’s a habit that has paid dividends, and I hoped it would now. Mine was an aisle seat a few rows behind the first class barrier and I had a few seats to myself, so I hoped to take advantage of that private space.

Coming down the aisle toward me from first class was “Terri,” a hostess I had befriended earlier. Our eyes met and I gently got her attention, hoping she would stop. She did, and then crouched to listen as I whispered, “I know you can’t tell me what happened, even if you know. 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 down the aisle on her errand. It was a small grace but it was enough – strangely comforting – and the first of many such gestures to come in the next few days.

Story continued next post….

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Image of Halifax from “canoe too” (permission via Creative Commons)