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What should we do in this crisis?


(Written September 11, 2001, to a list of my friends and colleagues;
amended Dec 18, 2001 to provide useful references)


See also
Questions for reflection about the 911 attacks

A Call to Move Beyond Public Opinion to Public Judgment



Dear Friends,

"What should we do?"  Elliot was calling from work, having just heard about this morning's attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.  We are housemates in a 9-person collective house into which I moved a month ago.

My partner Karen, my daughter Jennifer, Adin (another housemate) and I had been talking about the crisis for over an hour.  We wondered about Elliot's question.  One thing we could do was write to you -- my list of 800 people -- who have so many important connections into the world.  But what should we say?

We thought of sharing a lesson we'd all agreed on:  "We can't be secure when we are doing so many things that lead people to hate us."  We wondered about saying more.  We looked at the role of greed, and then at how greed was just one form of power-hunger, and how power-hunger derives from insecurity which, in turn, arises from disconnection from other people and life.  People don't exploit, neglect or terrorize things they love and vibrantly relate to.

But, one of us said, there's more than individual motivations at work here.  The systems we live in and use -- the social, economic, political, and other systems -- support greed, power-hunger, insecurity and alienation in thousands of subtle and not-so-subtle ways.  Someone else commented that the systemic and the individual dynamics feed back into each other.  Another person suggested there are many positive initiatives that could change both the system and the individual behaviors.  I suggested evidence that -- right now -- the world has the resources and know-how to create a just and sustainable world that works for all, but they just aren't being used for that.

As we explored all this, we noticed that our individual contributions were painting an ever-fuller, richer picture of what was going on and how to understand it.  We decided that this situation has so many facets that high-quality reflection and dialogue -- thoughtful exploration among diverse perspectives, such as we were doing -- may be the ONLY way to comprehend and creatively address incidents as profoundly important as these.  In the absence of dialogue and reflection, we oversimply.  All of us do.  We blame an enemy -- perhaps terrorists or "the system" -- or we focus on one small part of the web of causation -- perhaps "greed" or "revenge" or something else that we particularly understand.

But the signficance of this realization reaches beyond today's attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon:  This horrible incident is but one in an ongoing chain of incidents of profound social significance.  Each one is an opportuntiy to think, to feel and to talk -- to deepen and learn -- so that we can act more effectively and wisely, both individually and collectively.  We saw that hope lies in the kind of "learning together" that generates engaged wisdom -- rather than in the kind of reactivity that supports our weakest and worst responses.

This isn't the first crisis to hit our society.  And it definitely won't be the last.  We all know that crises like this can evoke the worst --or the best -- in ordinary folks, in leaders, and in whole societies.  What can we do to help the best, the wisest and most useful responses emerge?

Usually in crisis most people watch the news and wait like spectators to see what various leaders and governments will do, as if the drama were a football game.  Meanwhile, those leaders and governments are caught up in dynamics which -- to say the least -- do not enhance their wisdom.  More often than not, their actions -- and our spectatorism -- lead us all into even worse problems.

To change that, we need widespread, healthy conversations that generate deeper insight and the kind of creative engagement that makes a difference in the world.  Ultimately, we need to make such conversations part of the structure of our culture -- especially of our political and governmental systems (see the articles and links on and

But today we can find people we trust and care about, and gather in circles, speaking and listening from our hearts.  We can listen well to those who disagree with us, and ask questions that deepen shared understanding.  (See 911 Community Dialogue Initiatives)  And, for the long haul, we can advocate the "infrastructure of dialogue" that our democracy so sorely needs -- places we can go for high quality public conversation, publicly available facilitators and technology, and diverse citizen councils who explore important issues with high quality dialogue in full public view, whose findings and recommendations have a real impact on public policy and public activity. (see A Call to Move Beyond Public Opinion to Public Judgment)

We find ourselves in a moment of great danger.  It contains seeds of great opportunity.  Let us each do what we can to promote healthy dialogue that motivates wise action at all levels of our society.  That one change would change everything else:  With each successive crisis, we would find ourselves moving away from ultimate Disaster towards a world that works for all, a world that is actually a joy to live in.