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Six Years After 9/11: What Have We Learned? What Could We Still Learn?

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Six years ago I watched the World Trade Center's collapse from my Brooklyn apartment. I went out to vote that day (an election that was ultimately re-scheduled) and the smell of burning plastic filled the air even though I lived miles from the site. From this picture taken from Earth orbit, I can see why...

The wind carried the smoke right over my part of Brooklyn.

I had lived with the WTC ever since 1976 - when I got out of college - because I worked in lower Manhattan at 26 Federal Plaza and my office windows faced South. In fact, each fall my office mates and I would wait for just the right days when the path of the setting Sun would take it right between the twin towers... an amazing thing to see.


A beautiful image that combined the best of the natural and man-made worlds.

After living in Brooklyn for 15 years, believe it or not I was scheduled to move back to Manhattan on September 15, 2001. I give my moving company (Shleppers Moving & Storage) a lot of credit for making the move happen on the originally agreed upon date despite all that had happened (and with needing to find a route from Brooklyn to mid-town Manhattan that was passable). Here's a picture of lower Manhattan that I took as I crossed over the East River on my moving day. You can see the smoke from the still-burning World Trade Center site.

In the weeks after the attack, as all Americans struggled with "What do we do now?" questions, I was fortunate to have my thoughts on the subject published twice as letters to the editor of The New York Times (something I've been able to do about 10 times over the years).

On September 27th, I wrote that our capitalistic society - starting with the philosophy for redeveloping lower Manhattan - should aim to put compassion at the center of a re-imagined core.

And on November 19th, I wrote that plans for redeveloping lower Manhattan should help people think clearly about the nature of the world both before and after 9/11.

So, what have we learned since 9/11? And what could we still learn?

Well, I'll invite you form your own opinion about the plans to redevelop lower Manhattan by helping you visit the site for the planning organization, "RenewNYC.com". You can visit RenewNYC.com here. The memorial itself has as its theme Reflecting Absence and is described this way:

"Reflecting Absence is the memorial to honor the 2,979 heroes lost in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and February 26, 1993. The memorial will ensure that future generations will know where the towers once stood and will never forget each individual life taken during those tragic days. The memorial will be a place for families and friends to remember, a final resting place for those who have not been identified, and a place where thousands will come to reflect upon and share our personal and collective loss.... The memorial will not only remember those killed, but it will celebrate the heroism that prevailed following the attacks, and the resolve of our nation to overcome."

The phrase "the resolve of our nation to overcome" is appropriately therapeutic but misses the critical element that to truly move on from tragedy one needs to commit to a purpose that is future focused. Perhaps one that respects the lives of those who died by reflecting what they wanted to accomplish in their lives, but still one that is future focused. Without that, one remains psychologically "stuck" in the past forever.

This is something that Mayor Michael Bloomberg apparently recognizes himself. You can read about how Mayor Bloomberg is - in the words of The New York Times - "(playing) an essential if more subtle role in nudging the city to gradually let go of its grief. It is a challenge the mayor has handled sometimes clumsily and sometimes with great sensitivity and eloquence, as he charted the path away from the concrete events of 2001. Now, as he works to imbue the city with optimism for the future, he even hints at a day when remembering may not mean reading the names of all the dead." here.

This article also quotes Mayor Bloomberg as saying (after the first 9/11 anniversary) "I think the Jews do it right. They have a headstone unveiling a year after the funeral, and that's sort of the time that you sort of stop the mourning process and start going forward. And the 9/11 ceremonies, what I'm trying to do is that in the morning we will look back, remember who they were and why they died. And in the evening come out of it looking forward and say, 'O.K., we're going to go forward.'"

"Go forward." If only those redeveloping lower Manhattan knew this concept well enough to make "Ground Zero" and its vicinity an area that called to all Americans... and the people of the world... to make capitalism more compassionate. Well, I'm an optimist. Perhaps that will happen some day. (Read on for how I believe that can happen.)

There is one thing in RenewNYC.com's plans that does focus on the future - and in a very significant way, too. It is the development organization's commitment to "green" building design and construction principles. That is a great commitment, but it has no direct connection to the question of whether the future we create will be one in which terrorists either stop or continue to attack us. It will, however, save energy and provide a healthier work environment for the people in these buildings. And that's a good thing.

So, one thing we've learned since 9/11 is that those entrusted with formulating redevelopment plans in the face of a national catastrophe tend to do so by looking backward rather than forward. And the result is an increased potential that we will remain emotionally stuck in the past... not a good thing. In my opinion, there is nothing about the redevelopment of lower Manhattan or the World Trade Center memorial itself that will help the public think critically about what type of society we should be building in the future.

Although if Mayor Bloomberg had been in charge, there's at least a chance the memorial would have been forward and future focused.

Now, regarding my call for Compassionate Capitalism, we only have to look as far as Naomi Klein's "The Shock Doctrine" to show us how far capitalism is from being what one could even begin to call "compassionate". (If you haven't watched the short documentary made in conjunction with her new book, I highly recommend you do so here.)

"The Shock Doctrine" describes how entire societies have been taken advantage of (one might even call it "cultural rape") by those entrusted with leading them out of danger. Whether the danger is economic or security related, when it strikes there exists a conscious effort on the part of members of the business and political classes to push through changes in "the rules of the game" that make it much more possible for certain wealthy people to get wealthier and more powerful while the rest of us get poorer and less powerful.

When matched against the rules of society, this is serious, immoral and illegal stuff. And to the degree that it is happening in America (and it is, but Naomi Klein's work talks about other countries as well), then those responsible should be tried for their "high crimes and..." Well, you get my drift.

Unfortunately, it has become increasingly clear that the George W. "we create our own reality" Bush administration cares very little about the Rule of Law. It cares about the Golden Rule ("He who has the gold rules.") And those businesses - and business leaders - who finance and otherwise support the Bush administration's activities and the activities of those politicians (both Democrats and Republicans) who keep this systems in place also live according to this most twisted of "golden rules". As I say, they should be put on trial for their crimes against the system created by The Founding Fathers.

(Can you imagine what it would be like if our nation's business and political leaders - who so frequently refer to their religious beliefs - lived in accordance with the real Golden Rule? Why, we've live in a totally transformed world! But I digress. Sorry.)

John Dean has just written a fascinating new book, "Broken Government", in which - along with many other things - he discusses the role the Democrats play in keeping this illegal, immoral, and dysfunction system going. In an article Dean wrote called "Defeating Dysfunction" to promote his book, he says "Democrats criticize Republican policies, but they ignore the persistent abuses of process that have become normal Republican political behavior. Democratic distaste for addressing process issues first came to my attention following the 2004 presidential campaign, when I spoke to one of Senator John Kerry's top advisers. I was curious why Kerry had not pressed President Bush about the excessive secrecy he and Vice President Cheney had imposed on their administration... Kerry's adviser told me the campaign had not addressed this concern because "secrecy is a process issue." Process, apparently, was an area where the Democratic candidate did not go."

Dean goes on to say that "the current inside-the-Beltway wisdom holds that the public is not interested in process. In fact, empirical data show this is wrong." And he concludes by saying "The vitality of American democracy demands that (the Democrats) once again take up process in 2008."

In saying clearly that "It's the process, stupid", John Dean points to the critical lesson of our time... and the lesson we must learn. For it opens the door to the only way we will ever have the Compassionate Capitalism we are capable of having. This is The Lesson We Can Still Learn. It's not too late.

It is a lesson that will take America down a road which many Democrats may be uncomfortable traveling, but it is the only road that leads to the objective we must reach as a nation: the restoration of our American values. "Truth, Justice, and the American Way" wasn't just something Superman used to say he stood for. It was who we were on our best days and who we sought to be on our worst. It was never what the people we have entrusted to lead us into the future consciously sought to violate.

So, we must deal with the process we are using to get where we say we want to go. The Democrats must deal with the process. Progressive thinking Republicans must deal with the process. Third party candidates must deal with the process. (Ralph, this means you don't get to say that there's no difference between Democrats and Republicans anymore. Read John Dean's book, okay?) And "we, the people" must deal with the process.

Because to not do so is like saying "The automobile I'm driving has gotten me everywhere I've wanted to get to so far. I'll just keep driving it as I try to get to this new destination", as you leave dry land and set off across the water to get to a distant land called Compassionate Capitalism.

See how crazy it is to think this way? We're still in our cars and are trying to drive across the water. We are sinking fast, my friends. We need to get out of our cars!

If you agree with me and are now asking "Okay, where do I go to learn about process? And has anyone figured out what process could get us to this better future?", then I say "Welcome aboard! It's going to be an exciting journey from here forward!"

There are places you can go to learn process. And there are people who are already using the New Thinking society needs to adopt in order to get to this better world.

If you are an organizational leader (either for-profit or non-profit), I highly recommend you get involved with the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Program, which is run by the federal government's National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). This program - which was signed into law 20 years ago during the Reagan Administration - is based on the continuous learning and improvement principles originally developed by such quality management leaders as Dr. W. Edwards Deming and Dr. Joseph Juran, the men who went to Japan after World War II and taught the Japanese how to make high quality products.

The Baldrige Program is intense, educational, and the best national program I know of for learning how to view what you're doing in ways that support you in making fundamental change. (Perhaps the US Congress should get involved with the Baldrige Program.) For those who want to "play in the minor leagues before joining the majors", I recommend the state-wide, Baldrige-based programs that function under the umbrella Network for Excellence. (Point of transparency: I am a board member of the Keystone Alliance for Performance Excellence, which is the Baldrige-based organization that covers Pennsylvania.)

Finally, while you may think that Compassionate Capitalism is an idea beyond what anyone dealing with process is talking about, I call your attention to the Corporate Social Responsibility movement. It is an increasingly mainstream corporate strategic focal point - as recognized by Harvard Business School's Michael Porter, in his article "Strategy and Society" which was published last December - AND it includes a focus on process, especially under the umbrella of the work of The UN Global Compact. The Global Compact's Performance Model is a Baldrige-like, continuous learning and improvement based program any organization can use to examine how it is going about attempting to be a good corporate citizen and to improve the processes it is using to do so. The Global Compact is a world-wide initiative that includes a network of USA-based corporations. At the same time, here in the USA we have Business for Social Responsibility, which works in partnership with The Global Compact.

There is hope, my friends. You just need to know where to look for it.

And in the case of our political and business leaders, we who want them to "do the right thing" must demand that they examine and fix the process! (And that they learn how to do so first!)

We can get to the better world we say we want. But we can't get there by using the same thinking... the same process... we've used until now. We need to learn how to Think Differently!