Be it business, life, love or society, sometimes great events don’t change everything but do reveal how everything has already changed.
I reached across the bed for the remote. The big screen flashed images of Manhattan still cloaked in haze and dust and smoke. “[email protected]”, I thought, “It wasn’t a dream”.
Thus began the morning of September 12, 2001.
The place was a chain hotel in the town of Somerset just off the Pennsylvania Turnpike, a mere 15 miles from where 24 hours before passengers lost their fight to wrestle Flight 93 back from a gang of homicidal terrorists. I came to town to facilitate the annual board meeting of a local community group late on the afternoon of the 11th. The pot luck before went on as scheduled, but we dispensed with meeting business. People just wanted to hang with each other and talk. Needed to be close.
But my meeting on the morning of September 12th had, of course, been canceled. This presented the opportunity of a leisurely morning before hitting the road and driving the 3 hours back home. No one was doing business anywhere.
No business save in the hotel lobby, in the dining area, in the parking lot. What had been a casual generic chain hotel when I arrived the evening before had transformed by morning into something akin to a military headquarters.
Here and there were clusters of men and women deep into intense conversations. Many sported jackets emblazoned with one agency or another, FBI, ATF, NTSB and so on. Others talked while draped in lanyards enclosing an official-looking photo ID. Rounding out the throng were the anonymous ones. Although bedecked in perfectly casual generic civilian clothes, by their posture and interactions with others one could tell these were major players here this morning.
Oh, maybe a ¼ had sidearms. Walking into the breakfast room, I took care not to make any sudden moves for the scrambled eggs.
But it was when leaving that I had a moment of revelation.
In the back parking lot near my own car sat three separate panel vans. The size and shape you’d normally see making bread deliveries at the supermarket. Two with Virginia plates were white, the New Yorker was black. Each had those nondescript USDOT numberings. Paint them brown and you’d think the UPS man arrived.
The rear doors of all three were open with men quietly moving about inside. None wore any type of official badge or armband distinguishing who they were and why they were there.
Inside the vans were weapons. I mean Weapons. Armaments enough, it appeared, to pull off a fair-sized coup in some Latin American country. Such a variety of arms as this left the impression that if an opponent walked, drove or flew, these guys would bring ’em down.
I wish I was knowledgeable enough to specifically identify for you a “SZ-28 with a Brackenbaud scope which fires a 70 caliber projectile at a target 2 miles away” or “A Manschmauser 18” grenade launcher” or some such. I don’t know specific weapon makes and models, but I do understand firepower. These guys had it.
The late Mayor Frank Rizzo once contended during his days in office that the 1970s Philadelphia Police force could, “invade Cuba….and win!” Back then all the Philly cops had in their arsenal were .38 revolvers, a collection of rifles, plus a few cans of tear gas. But that was about to change. Within a decade the boys in blue acquired the ability to firebomb Philadelphia neighborhoods and incinerate whole city blocks.
As I stood transfixed by the awesome firepower before me on September 11th, one van occupant took a moment from scribbling notes on a pad to look up. A slight nod on his part sent the message, “Move along buddy”. So along I moved.
But I couldn’t make sense of what I just saw. I needed clarity. Phone circuits across the country were jammed, but that morning I got through to “Bradley.” I wanted his thoughts. His two tours with Special Forces in Vietnam solidified a certain skepticism in Bradley about the motives and practices of the US Government. Life as a civilian left him equally suspicious of police.
“You won’t believe this sh*t,” I started, then proceeded into a long description of the recently viewed arsenal. “Jeez”, I went on, the Feds sure can bring the hammer when they need.” Bradley asked in response, “Why do you assume they’re from the Federal Government?”
This question brought me up short. What was it that made me automatically believe they were federal authorities? I mean, they could’ve been, but it seemed equally likely they were state police from Virginia and New York.
“Well”, I quipped, “at least they’re ready to take on the terrorists.” “Or Americans,” he replied.
It was then I got a sense that reality had passed me by and I was now getting my first glimpse of how things really are.
Just eight years before in 1993, agents of the US government launched their infamous raid on a religious group in Waco, Texas. After surrounding the home of the Branch Davidians with copters, tanks, and high powered weaponry, federal agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms saturated the place with tear gas. Failing to drive the occupants out, the ATF escalated by firing incendiaries which set the building aflame and burnt the place to the ground. Ninety-one people were roasted, including scores of innocent children.
First they gassed ’em, then they cremated ’em. Never a good look when your government does this to its own citizens. Ask anyone in Berlin.
What I totally missed over the years became completely clear on September 11th, the culture of policing in America had morphed from protect and serve into one more akin to paramilitaries.
And it all happened so subtly I hadn’t noticed. Step by step in small increments. First, the Pentagon gave local cops old military equipment such as Armored Personnel Carriers. Then local citizens raised money to buy cops bulletproof vests. Finally, City Council outfitted cops with so much gear lashed to their uniforms that they began look less like peace officers and more like warriors.
Throughout the 90s it was happening, yet I failed to detect what took place right under my nose.
Now I knew what the future could hold. If they could launch that firepower against them, they could launch it against anyone. They could launch it against me.
I finally understood that the world had already changed.
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