My wife and I may have been the last people in the world to learn of the 9-11 attacks.
On September 11, 2001, I was 46 years old, a lieutenant in the Bergen County (NJ) Police Department, and the day shift tour commander. My wife was a pre-school music teacher, working part time in four different schools. That happened to be a day off for both of us, and a beautiful day it was. We loaded our bikes into the family minivan, and drove northwest, through West Milford, into Orange County, NY.
As we drove, we were listening to WQXR on the radio, a classical music station with a notoriously weak signal. As we went over the final big hill before leaving New Jersey, the signal faded to static, and we turned the radio off. It was a little before 9:00, perhaps minutes before the music would be stopped for a news bulletin, and shortly before the transmitting antenna tumbled into the pile of debris that had been the World Trade Center.
We drove to a park in Warwick, located between farms and new housing developments, parked the minivan, and rode off into a cellular no-man’s land. We went up Spanktown Road to the end, turned right, and descended a short hill into an area that’s known as “the black dirt.”
The black dirt is several miles across, the bottom of a prehistoric lake; flat as a table top, black, rich soil, nothing but fields of growing vegetables as far as the distant hills. The roads are straight lines. It’s a novel kind of cycling for this part of the country. (Here and there, you pass the tiny shacks where migrant farm workers live from time to time. There may have been crates of onions stacked here and there.)
At the far side of the black dirt, we emerged into a small community, not quite a village even, just a few houses and businesses, like small metalworking shops, drilling contractors, and such. It was a strangely quiet day in the neighborhood.
We enjoyed the country roads and the very light traffic. Coming back through that little community near noon, it was so quiet and still under the bright sun that I thought of a Mexican town at siesta time. Weird, really.
When we got back to the minivan, we had lunch – I think I had peanut butter and jelly. No one else was using the park. Then we started for home, planning to stop at a deli two miles down the road to get cold drinks.
The deli is a small store with a porch and curtains on the windows. There are a few tables with chairs, and a TV on the wall over the cash register. So, we walked in, looked at the TV, saw the footage of the towers burning, replayed for maybe the hundredth time already, and found out at about 2:00 PM.
After thinking pretty much the same things everyone else must have thought, I thought the next thing, pulled out my cell phone, and looked at it – Shit! Zero bars! We got back in the minivan and started driving fast, while my wife looked at her phone. When we got to a pocket of cellular service, I pulled over and called work. I don’t remember who answered, but I said, “It’s Paul Hamell, I just heard, I’ve been on my bike in the middle of nowhere …”
He said, “OK, we’ve been trying to reach you. All days off and vacations are cancelled and we’re working twelve-hour shifts. Come in at twenty-three hundred hours, you’ll have the desk.” (That was my usual assignment, overseeing patrol operations and communications.) So I went home and slept, to be ready for my overnight shift.
Everyone remembers how it felt to be an American in the weeks that followed, and a lot of people are writing about it now. But not everyone knows how it felt to be an American cop in those days, particularly a cop in a densely populated, highly developed county bordering New York City. We were on the highest possible alert, trying to anticipate which target in our county might be struck, and how it would be attacked: the George Washington Bridge? Giants Stadium? The New Jersey Turnpike? One of the huge shopping malls? Not only did we have people trying to protect everything, our motorcycle cops were escorting convoys of construction trucks across the river and down the west side of Manhattan to the pile of debris, to dig for survivors or bodies. They drove down streets lined with people watching them, like a parade, crowds of New Yorkers, cheering and holding signs that said, “Thank-you New Jersey.”
(One of my cops had been patrolling Route-3 in the meadowlands when the attacks happened. Driving east, she heard a newsflash on the FM radio saying that a plane had struck the World Trade Center. A moment later, she came over the crest of the Berry’s Creek Bridge, looked to her right, and saw a plane fly into the World Trade Center and explode. It was so confusing, hearing a horrific news account, then seeing the event, after the fact … She was obsessed after that, spending hours scouring the internet for intelligence sources, finding the federal and state connections for information, bringing us all the rumors and speculation from the intelligence community. Soon, she was made a detective and assigned to intelligence gathering, but, as I have only just realized, she may have just been working through post-traumatic stress.)
Like everyone else, we believed that nothing would ever be the same, that we were now at war, the war would be fought in skirmishes here and there across the country, and we, the police, would be the front line. (I started carrying an off-duty gun again, for the first time in years.)
We were wrong about many things.
The terrorists who acted on September 11, 2001 made fools of themselves. They failed to notice that the organizing principle of existence is Oneness, and, consequently, the strongest force operating in our world is love. Acting divisively and hatefully, they caused a rending in the fabric of the world, and love rushed in to fill and mend the tear. Even before the attack was finished, people were coming together in love and kindness; it was love of neighbor that brought United flight 93 down in a field in Pennsylvania, rather than in the Capitol rotunda, just as it was love of neighbor that brought emergency workers rushing to the flaming towers. And we in the public safety community came together and stood up together, and the whole country came together, and the world joined in and stood with us. As the French magazine, Le Monde said, We are all Americans now.
It was a pregnant moment, a moment ripe with Oneness and love, the world poised on a beam, ready to tilt toward reconciliation and peace …
And we forgot that the organizing principal of existence is Oneness and the strongest force in our world is love. As Jim Wallis, the evangelical minister who leads the peace and social justice group, Sojourners, wrote in his blog, “The opportunity for deeper understanding, reflection, and redirection would elude us as we sought to erase our vulnerability with the need to demonstrate our superior force and power. This was done quite easily in the early days of both our new wars. But now, we see that the longest series of wars in American history has failed to resolve or reverse the causes of the violence that struck us, or to make us safer. They just made it all worse.” (Please read his eloquent and tender post here.)
For a moment in time, we could have made our country just like Gander, Newfoundland.
Gander. Really. Surely you remember Gander?
Gander is that little town near the northeast corner of Newfoundland that has a little airport with a big, long runway, a relic of World War II, the last possible stop for Europe-bound flights leaving North America, the first possible emergency landing for incoming flights. On 9-11, the U.S. closed its airspace, and all of the airborne flights had to get down as soon as possible.
Gander, population 10,000 (and a few small towns nearby) suddenly became the host for 38 jumbo jets carrying 6700 people from 92 countries. Not knowing how long “the plane people” would have to stay, and without asking anything in return, in the midst of great trauma and fear, the people of Gander set up shelters with donated space, food, and bedding, took people into their homes, fed them, clothed them, got them medicine, saw to their needs, and befriended them. Newfoundland is a harsh land, and that’s just how people are there. (A wonderful article about this appeared a few days ago in a New Jersey newspaper, The Record. You can – and should – read the article or watch a short video here.)
What happened in Gander for those five days is what it looks like when people love their neighbors as themselves. And we were rocking that here, too, even in cynical New York City. But, as sorrow morphed into fear and anger (I never know where fear and anger become different things, so closely are they linked) and calls for safety became calls for vengeance, we devolved a bit.
And so, I see I’ve circled back to where I was before I started writing about Gander. And our country has circled around to a place where one of our major political parties espouses libertarianism, a philosophy that explicitly rejects altruism as immoral, and extolls selfishness as the highest virtue.
In a universe where Oneness underlies all, and that Oneness expresses itself as love and community, how long can a society that prefers selfishness and bitter factionalism survive? How long can the Disunited States of America thrive? If a house is built on sand, how long can it stand?
Where be these enemies? Capulet! Montague!
See, what a scourge is laid upon your hate,
That heaven finds means to kill your joys with love ….
A glooming peace this morning with it brings;
The sun, for sorrow, will not show his head …
– Wm. Shakespeare
(Romeo and Juliet, Act V)