Frozen in Time
Where were you on September 11, 2001? The question is often posed in self-reflection of a day where everything we knew became something different. I was nowhere near New York City.
In my living room, I had set up an ironing board so I could watch the news, sip coffee, and press my uniform for the night shift. Cops multitask at home just as they do at work.
The iron was a little too hot but my laziness prevailed and I used it anyway. Pressing my uniform, a sudden change in programming captured my attention. I really didn’t believe what I was seeing, so I flipped channels only to find the same scene. It froze me in time.
Somehow, I managed to take a few seconds to call one of my colleagues and told her to turn the television on. She laughed while I described airplanes flying into New York City buildings. She did not believe me. I convinced her to turn on the news.
We couldn’t take our eyes off of it. For quite some time we stayed on the phone together.
Pretty soon, we were overwhelmed watching people jump from high stories to their deaths. We felt helpless, like we should arm ourselves and do something. What was next? Was the whole country in peril? What was going on? How could this happen? We both felt sorrow, anger, and insecurity. How could it be an accident?
Quickly our attention was changed to Flight 93 by a newscaster. It was not an accident or massive air traffic mistake. It was being called an act of terrorism and all four airplane crashes were related.
At some point, I hung up to finish preparing for work. I watched the television for the few hours before shift.
But duty still called. Our briefing that night was somber. We all felt under attack by some unknown events to come. If they hit New York what else would they target? Wyoming had missile sites. Were we next? We all functioned in a state of high alert and uncertainty.
The city was pretty ghostlike that night.
As I watched one of my area school zones, I saw a white Nissan sedan speed through. Activating my lights, the driver didn’t pull over right away. Flipping on the siren for several feet, the driver finally stopped near the football field of one of the local high schools on the east side of town.
The driver’s side door bolted open and an older man jumped out of the car with his hands up, crying and screaming and getting down on his knees. I was startled which caused me to retreat a few steps and prepare for aggression. The behavior was irrational for an ordinary traffic stop.
He screamed not to kill him, not to hurt him, he had family, “Police please have mercy on me.” He had a foreign accent.
He was visibly shaking. He wouldn’t look up at me and remained on his knees.
I recognized him. I reached down and grabbed his arm to help him up, calling out his name. Still shaking, he allowed me to help him up off the ground. When he finally looked at me with tears in his eyes, I told him it was alright. He had just been speeding.
We talked of the 9/11 attacks. He felt all of America was judging him in a different light. He was from the Middle East. He had lived in the United States for over 30 years and had finished college at an American University. He loved America and was now a citizen. Yet, he told me in an instant he felt more like a foreigner than ever before only because of the actions of terrorists. It left him dumbfounded and fearful as others would look at his ethnicity and judge him as evil. He didn’t want people to look at him with hate and discontent. He was ashamed. I felt pity on him and I really understood his side of things. I also recognized that no matter what I said, only my actions would have mattered in that moment.
I let him go, not even finishing the traffic stop. It was one of those things. Even after seeing him drive off with relief on his face, I sat in my car. The sadness of the whole situation took over me. In some sense, I suppose I was trying to put myself in his shoes and imagine his fear and reflect upon how ethnicity frames and binds us in some capacity even though it should not. We both couldn’t get past the grief we felt for our country and the fear of the unknown. I never spoke of that moment to my peers.
The world political climate dramatically shifted that day and the security we had taken for granted as a nation was no more. The buzz around the globe was just as shocked as we were; that the super power was struck so cleverly like a weak spot on a dragon. The United States was and still is full of freedoms and liberties many in other countries do not enjoy. On September 11, 2001, our impermeable shield was shattered by terrorist acts striking our country which shifted our way of life.
I try to remember what it was like before that day. However, time coupled with my hypervigilance has taken over any other memory of what it felt like to be blissfully ignorant like June and Ward.
So that’s what 9/11 has become to me. It doesn’t just belong to New York. It is a United States tragedy that I will never forget. Many people perished needlessly from a cruel act of terrorism. Images of those plunging to their deaths forever inside my head. Their stories will remain. Perhaps the only positive thing is that it banded us together before we divided ourselves apart. Lest we forget.
Kathryn Loving is a former peace officer for the Casper Police Department, Casper, Wyoming, where she held assignments as a patrol officer, detective, and hostage negotiator. She is currently pursuing a Master’s Degree in Public Administration with concentration in Criminal Justice and Criminology. Her research focus is on police stress, burnout, and best practices in law enforcement.