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  • Writer's pictureRobertson Work

After the Attack on New York City: A Call to Create a World of Justice and Peace

Updated: Apr 2, 2022

As a student of the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh and UNDP's principal policy advisor of decentralized governance based in NYC , I wrote this essay in 2001 immediately following the 9/11 tragedy. I called on the US not to launch a ''war on terror" but rather to be part of a global initiative of peace and justice. I wrote these reflections and recommendations as a human being, a UN staff member, and an American. This essay is relevant in 2022 with the tragic violence in Ukraine, Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere. It appears in my book Society, Spirit, Self: Essays on the One Dance, page 3 - 11, in the collection on societal transformations, part of the visionary social activism theme.

An Impression: 12 September 2001

All of us are deeply saddened and shocked by the tragedy of yesterday. Our family is safe, but so many families are in mourning.

Yesterday morning, my son Benjamin was driving his mother Mary into Manhattan for her chemotherapy treatment but turned back when they saw smoke in the distance and heard the news. I took the morning train into Manhattan. When I arrived in Grand Central, I noticed something strange. Almost every other person was using their cell phone. When I reached the newsstand, around one hundred people were watching the TV monitor that showed two towers on fire. I was deeply shocked and kept saying "how sad, how sad."

When I got to my office at the UN, colleagues were gathered around a radio and asked if I had heard that the Trade Center had been hit by two planes. I said yes, then I went into my office and cried for those who were losing their lives and being harmed. My son Christopher had left me a voicemail asking me to call him at work. When I called him, I broke down again. A colleague then said that the Pentagon had been hit. We heard that other planes were still in the air and that the UN was being evacuated.

Another colleague who has an apartment near the UN invited several of us to stay with her until further notice. From her apartment, we saw billowing smoke coming from southern Manhattan and in the space where the twin towers had stood, we saw a smoke-filled void. Later, some of us were able to get back to Grand Central and catch a train north to Westchester County. I got off at Fleetwood where Benjamin had brought Mary and where our children live. After I greeted them, I broke down a third time while repeating “there is so much suffering in the world; how can we relieve this suffering?” We then drove back to Garrison in Putnam County.

An era of world history has ended. What happens now depends on the response of each of us. My prayer is that this tragedy will be more than a wakeup call to terrorism requiring retaliation but will be a profound wakeup call to the suffering, confusion, anger, and hatred around the planet that calls for our compassion for our fellow human beings and all living beings. Over a billion people live in poverty. The natural environment is imperiled. HIV/AIDS is devastating whole nations. People are victims of racism, ethnic cleansing, religious persecution, economic and cultural marginalization, and gender violence. People are trapped in ideologies that justify greed, fear, and violence. The wealthy want to protect their privileged lifestyle. The downtrodden cry out for justice and a chance to live.

May all sentient beings everywhere experience happiness, peace, compassion, and wisdom.

A Reflection: 13 September

As a human being, a UN staff member, and an American citizen, I would like to share some of my reflections. As human beings, we are all grief-stricken by the events of the week. Grief has several stages. It begins as shock, then denial, numbness, disorientation, remorse, pain, and overwhelming loss. Grief is always an occasion for personal transformation. Grief breaks our heart. Out of this wounding, we can either become more compassionate or more fearful, angry, or embittered. Grief-work is especially important. We must take the time needed, pay attention to ourselves and others, accept what is happening and be careful that we move toward compassion rather than anger and hate.

Compassion does not mean weakness. It does not mean letting other people continue to provoke terrible innocent suffering. It means coming into a space of acceptance and love out of which cool decisions can be made. It means creating the circumstances for the protection of innocent peoples everywhere. It means restraining and holding accountable those who have violated others’ rights of life and happiness. It means going to the very source of human confusion and ignorance to transform the wellsprings of hatred and violence within each one of us.

As a staff member of the UN, I believe that we must use the tremendous energy generated by this tragic event to catalyze an explosion of global, human development. Just as the tragedy of World War II gave birth to the United Nations, this unprecedented event in and of itself must be interpreted and transformed into a controlled chain reaction of energy and emotion – the difference between a nuclear power plant providing electricity to light peoples’ homes and a nuclear holocaust.

We must expand the world’s attention from the singular nature of this tragedy to other tragedies of similar or even greater magnitude – massive, extreme poverty of over one billion people, an imperiled natural and built environment, the devastation of entire countries by HIV/AIDS, natural disasters and civil wars, and the victimization of people by racism, religious persecution, ethnic cleansing, economic and cultural marginalization, and gender violence. We must transform the very nature of “globalization” from economic and military might to global human development.

As an American citizen, I pray that this tragedy will be for my country a profound wakeup call and moment of reflection on deeply held human values of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I pray that we will take our time in grief-work, care for those who mourn and need support, immediately increase human security for people everywhere, immediately set in motion constraints on all forms of violence against innocent people, set in motion the international processes of justice to bring to accountability those who are so filled with self righteousness and hatred that they believe that their analysis of reality and history justifies the intentional suffering and destruction of their fellow human beings.

My prayer is that we remember that no one, none of us, has clean hands. We must remember Nagasaki and Hiroshima. We must take responsibility for the consequences of the violent interventions made in other lands and of the people and movements we have supported and the people who have lost their lives. The self-righteous always have God on their side – both sides, on all sides. Perhaps this belief is the most dangerous of all – that our view of reality, my view of reality, is sufficient justification to harm and destroy other human beings and other forms of life.

This is a moment when we must be kind to ourselves and our neighbors. We must do our grief-work. We must take immediate action to protect innocent people and to restrain and hold accountable those who would harm others. We must channel our rekindled passion and love of life into small and surprising and massive and shocking acts of good will around the planet. As the great paleontologist, philosopher, and priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin once said,

The task before us now,

If we would not perish,

Is to shake off our ancient prejudices,

And to build the Earth

May all sentient beings everywhere know compassion and wisdom, peace and happiness, and be about the business of building this Earth.

Interpretations and New Directions: 17 September

Some of our most treasured and trusted categories and assumptions have been blown apart along with the lives of thousands of precious persons and several beautiful buildings. It would be a grave mistake to interpret last week’s tragic events and the prospects of the years ahead relying on the conceptual frameworks of previous centuries. If ever we needed new categories with which to think, analyze and strategize, it is now.

In this rapidly globalizing world, there is no North and South, no East and West, no developing and developed world, there is only one small planet. Sixty-two nationalities worked in the WTC. New York City can now identify with cities in other parts of the world such as Lebanon and Sri Lanka. Each country has its rich and poor. All countries face common challenges such as ozone depletion and HIV/AIDS.

Nation-states can no longer guarantee the security of their citizens. Armies cannot protect us, nor can missiles or missile-shields. Mass murder by a handful of people is not warfare in any historical sense of army against army, nation-state against nation-state, battlefields, victors, and vanquished.

Technology has been exposed as value neutral – equally powerful for creation or destruction. A sophisticated jet airplane taking people to vacations, family visits, returning to home or office is also a weapon of mass destruction.

Inequalities that were possible in previous centuries – billionaires eating at the same table as the malnourished - are no longer tolerable. We are too intimate in time and space. We cannot hide our wealth or hide from others’ impoverishment.

Good versus evil has been laid bare as an oversimplification in a world of mind-boggling complexity, with six billion people each with 10 billion brain cells and only “six degrees of separation.” At any moment on the planet for every act of hurt, there are a billion acts of kindness.

We must think beyond dualism – us or them, black or white, win or lose. We must learn to tolerate subtlety and complexity of analysis and strategy. We must look at the whole system in its interconnectedness and its mutual causality not only at discrete, mechanistic pieces. Reality is a whole system with dimensions of interior and exterior and individual and collective.

We must look within for solutions not expecting our external technologies alone to save us. Where within ourselves do we find confusion and ignorance, anger, and hatred? When and how have we harmed other people and other forms of life? How has this affected us? What is of ultimate value to us in this life? Do our emotions and ideas control us, or do we control and direct them?

We must talk to our neighbors and our enemies. They are human beings just like us with bodies, emotions, and minds. What are their hopes and fears? What are their values and assumptions? What are their worldviews? What are their analyses of reality and history? Without continuous dialogue, human relations and trust break down.

Human behavior is a manifestation of the human mind and heart. What a person thinks and feels determine their sense of what is real. To change a person’s images, ideas, and emotions is to change their worldview and subsequently their behavior both individual and institutional.

All people have seeds of anger, hatred, and violence in the soil of their minds. For some people, these seeds are watered by experiences, feelings and ideas, sprout and grow, becoming strong plants. Each of us must take care not to allow these seeds to be nurtured and cultivated. We must instead nourish seeds of compassion, kindness, and love. In fact, these are not only seeds but also the fundamental nature of mind itself that has become obscured and must be realized.

A global network of like-minded people, whether they be filled with love or hate, cannot be bombed out of existence. If ignorance and hatred have gained control, their minds and hearts must be changed. They must gain self-restraint. Until this happens their ability to manifest and exercise their ideas and feelings must be curtailed. This can be done by inhibiting their access to information, capital, communication, transportation, weapons, and opportunities of acting out their intentions.

Power must be decentralized throughout a society. In this way, no attack on one building, one city, or one group can result in societal paralysis and chaos. Power must reside throughout networks of self-generating nodes of intelligence each with the capabilities to decide and act.

It is becoming dramatically clear that ultimately there can be no guarantee of individual or national security, prosperity, or happiness unless these exist in some measure throughout global society – community by community. If only a few people have comfort and convenience and most of their neighbors struggle for survival in squalor and hopelessness, the causes and conditions exist for jealousy, pride, greed, conflict, fear, hatred, and violence. If for no other reason than self-interest, setting aside the motivation of compassion and love, it would benefit the rich and powerful, the well-off and comfortable if they provide opportunities for their brothers and sisters in need wherever they are.

What if we lived as one human family? What if we could create heaven on earth? What if the source of true happiness were found in helping others? What if compassion and wisdom rather than violence and confusion were the fundamental nature of the human being and could be realized person by person? What if we saw the world as one of abundance rather than scarcity and that the challenges facing us were ones of distribution of opportunity and access rather than hoarding and competition? What if we discovered that idealism and the “vision-thing” were the most practical, pragmatic, and transformative ways of viewing and dealing with reality and change?

What actions could be taken?

§ Commit $1 trillion to eradicating global poverty in memory of the 3,000 people who died on 11 September.

§ Invite the world community to join in a Millennium Project of Building the Earth.

§ Establish a global electronic network of dialogue and reconciliation.

§ Hold a series of regional and global conferences of dialogue and reconciliation with representatives of all perspectives and backgrounds.

§ Have a day of amnesty and forgiveness for all those who have committed violent crimes.

§ Establish programs of individual and organizational transformation with an array of tested, effective methods from different traditions.

§ Transform prisons into schools of transformation.

§ Teach transformative methods and approaches in all schools.

More than anything else, what is needed at this time is a response to our own suffering that is shocking and unexpected – a massive act of good will toward our enemies and those who suffer around the world. This response, rather than a rain of missiles killing thousands of innocent people, would set the stage for a new era of world history rather than the mindless perpetuation of centuries of violence and needless suffering.

Death is not the enemy. Death is a natural part of life and is the basis of our compassion for each other. The fiercest enemies we face are our own ignorance, mistrust, anger, hatred, pride, and intolerance.

Let us then herald the onset of a thousand years of global human development – community by community, person by person. May all people everywhere realize the cessation of suffering in perfect joy and happiness.


My book, Society, Spirit, Self: Essays on the One Dance, is available online and from local bookshops.

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