Sunday, September 11, 2011

Ten Years Later

Today is the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attack that destroyed the twin towers of the World Trade Centers. The horror of that day was the kind of watershed moment that people remember where they were when they first heard the news, or first watched the unbelievable video footage of the collisions and the buildings collapsing.

I was at home when the news first came in, alerted by a community member calling to tell us that her flight home from Hartford that morning
was cancelled indefinitely. After that, we had the radio on all day. Because Sandhill doesn't have a television set, I watched the first images of the attack that night at Kurt & Alline's house at Dancing Rabbit. I recall how hard it was to accept what I saw as reality, distinguished from the trailer for a Hollywood thriller.

It seems to me an appropriate occasion to reflect on where we've gotten any closer the last decade with respect to security, and hope for the future.

I remember that the responses immediately following the attacks sorted into two kinds. The dominant kind was outrage (and it was chilling to watch how quickly the Bush administration was able to orchestrate a retaliation). While this was understandable, it was also depressing. How was the call for violence in response to violence going to end violence? Have we learned nothing?

The other main response—which was in the minority, yet still present—was much more interesting, and much more hopeful: How did people get so angry with us that these acts of terrorism seemed an appropriate action? If I've learned anything over my quarter century as a process consultant, it's that we need to move more in the direction of responding with compassion and curiosity in the face of anger, and away from the eye-for-an-eye impulse that we've been leaning into since the days of Hammurabi. We need to get better—much better—at separating strong feelings from the acts of aggression that they inspire.

I am not talking about condoning violence. I am talking about trying to understand it, rather than trying to punish it or contain it. I am talking about our desperate need to learn how to focus our attention on addressing the roots of anger, rather than the routes by which it is expressed.

Ten years ago Bush had his way, and the hunt for Al Qaeda and Bin Laden was on. Air travel would never be the same. Gradually, we learned the meaning of Orange Alerts, that part of one's journey to a departure gate would be made in stocking feet, and to never to stow nail clippers in carry-on luggage.

While I'm thankful that terrorist acts have not proliferated as much some feared they would, I'm not convinced that we live in a safer world. Instead, I believe we live in a more vigilant world, and one that is more bunkered and more brittle. We also live in a world that is markedly more populous today (by nearly one billion), creating ever-increasing pressure on a shrinking pool of natural resources. Simultaneously, the imbalances between the haves and have-nots have widen considerably over the last decade (this is true whether you're comparing per capita income among countries or monitoring the ratio of highest to lowest paid in US companies). In short, there is no reason to think that the conditions that engender anger are diminishing, yet the window of opportunity for us as a species to find a better response to anger is diminishing.

Both the means and motivation for acts of terrorism are increasing. How will we respond? I don't think the answer lies in better airport security. I think we still have a chance to turn this around, yet we have to get much more serious about working constructively with conflict. Literally as if our lives depend on it.

I had dinner last night with a friend who was working in Louisa VA—within 10 miles of the epicenter of the 5.9 earthquake that erupted Aug 23. When the initial shock wave rolled over her office, her first thought was that someone had blown up the nearby nuclear power station on the North Anna River. She was relieved to feel the aftershocks, indicating that the disaster causing the pictures to jump off the wall was probably natural and not radioactive.

Natural disasters are bad enough. My hope is that there is yet enough time and motivation to build a world where those are our worst nightmares.

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