September 11, 2006

Around this time five years ago I had just landed at Heathrow on a flight from Washington DC via Chicago. I had spent the previous few days at an office in Arlington VA working on a method to create situational archetypes. It was an experiment in sense-making during the early days of my DARPA work, which post 9/11 became a key part of Genoa II. We had taken a group of people from very different backgrounds through a process of abstraction, emergence and convergence based on a range of events in US history and had produced a series of archetypal historical lens. This is rather like the work we do in creating individual archetypes but with a different focus. It had been a great success, in that having gone through the process people were able to talk through current political situations, despite their radically different backgrounds from the perspective of each archetype. A conflict resolution method, but also one designed to increase the number of perspectives that would be taken into account in a foreign policy. It had not been easy, people had started with a negative and cynical approach but they had engaged, become interested then enraptured (well thats a bit strong but it was good). Above all they had seen the world through new lens and from a different perspective.

Either way I was feeling good about life, a key concept had been proved in practice and offered hope for future projects. I picked up a hire car and set off north to address a big IBM sales conference at Warwick University. My brief was to shake them up and get them thinking about new possibilities. As I drove I planned to use my presence in Washington over the previous days to point to some of the innovative work that we were doing, and work of international importance. As I normally do when driving, I was listening to that unique British Institution Radio 4. A news item came on to the effect that there were reports of an aircraft cashing into a building in New York; it was concerned but low key, reported as an accident. Then the news unfolded, the second tower was hit and there was no doubt that we were concerned with a terrorist outrage although the magnitude was still not clear.

I arrived at Warwick University parked and got into the lecture theatre where the conference was been held. Checked in and sat down to look at CNN. At this point the true horror started to come home, the pictures of people hanging out of windows haunt me to this day. Details of the Washington strike came in and I started to make phone calls. It took a week to find out that everyone I knew and worked with were safe. I thought the conference organisers would cancel. Most people in IBM knew people who lived in New York or Washington DC, but no they wanted to go ahead and yes they wanted a RA-RA keynote. I think it was one of the most difficult speeches I have ever given. It started with a reflection on the previous week and the context of terrorism. Moved to the tragedy of that day’s events and I then managed to lighten the mood to get people laughing, engaged before returned to a serious message at the end. It was one of the best speeches I have ever given, and one that was only possible in the context of the day and in fear, to be honest, of getting it wrong. Weeks later I was back in Washington and working on what would become a more substantial proposal to DARPA which was funded, the results of which are now being taken up by the Government of Singapore and elsewhere.

Five years on and a lot has changed. The Congressional report on 9/11 has now come out and is a fascinating read, for its ideological perspective and also for some of the amazing facts about sense-making and decision making that surround the event. Like most Europeans and many Americans I regret that the opportunity offered by the sympathy and horror that followed 9/11 was not properly used, and eventually lost through stereotypical reaction. I remember that we had shown that it was possible for the right and left of american politics to see through other lens to gain new perspective, and I wish we had done the experiment ten years earlier and made it operational before the 9/11 follow through. I learnt something about using humour, with respect, in the context of tragedy. Above all I learnt that empathy is key: I knew that people I knew could have been killed and it changed my perspective. To know someone or be related to them would obviously have been far far worse.

9/11 was one of the seminal events of this century, possibly its defining one. Interestingly I thought back to day over the events in history that impinged on my life to the point where I can still remember where I was and what I was doing when I heard of them. The Cuban Missile Crisis when I was eight and my parents were prepared for nuclear war, the death of Kennedy, the first moon landing, the abolition of capital punishment in the UK and the end of the Vietnam War. All bar one are events in American History which reflects the dominance of the new imperium and its impact. An Egyptian poll asked two question recently – which country do you most hate and which country would you most want to live in. The answer to both questions was the same: the United States of America. It reflects a more general ambiguity. I have had more interesting and stimulating conversations in the US than anywhere else in the world. It has the best bookshop in the world, some of the most stunning scenery and many of most generous people I have met. It is multi-ethnic but (from an outsiders perspective) mono, or possibly duo-cultural. I have become a civil war buff, reading books, visiting battlefields thinking through alternative histories and their potential impact. I have seen some of the bravest experiments in military decision making the American Marines – far more open than most to new ways of thinking. The country is a fertile source of ideas, to use a platitude with sincerity, it is a real melting pot of ideas. Despite that, and all its advantages terrible things are done in its name. Reports over the weekend reported the use of special CIA interrogation centers for example. But no one can be complacent. The British invented the concentration camp, The French used torture extensively in North Africa and those who fight oppression all too frequently oppress in their turn when the contingencies of power ignite a form of un-charity that justifies itself in the interests of many.

We can in part trace the origins of modern America to the French Revolution. Dickens in his best (and to be honest to my mind his only readable) book A Tale of Two Cities produces one of the outstanding opening paragraphs in literature which provides a context and a reflection on 9/11 and its aftermath

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all doing direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

No country deserved 9/11 and no justification or explanation of those events is possible while maintaining sanity or humanity. However the test of the world (and not just the US) is if we can learn from the context of 9/11 both before, and critically after. To do that requires many perspectives, and many lens. I will return to Corinthians 1:13 and my preference for the King James use of charity over the Revised Standard’s use of love. Two lines stands out for me in this context:

Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up,
Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil;

In memory of those who died in 9/11 and of all those who have died or suffered in its aftermath.

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