September 11 and Satyagraha


As rekindled memories on the tenth anniversary of September 11 stir xenophobia and rage, we need to reaffirm our commitment to a Gandhian program of nonviolence. Credit: Creative Commons.

As the news of Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination spread through India on the first day of February, 1948, an American journalist was stunned by the outpouring of grief surrounding him. An Indian friend explained, “You see, the people believe there was a mirror in the Mahatma in which they could see the best they were capable of; and now they fear that the mirror has been shattered.”

Well, if so, it is time to pick up the pieces.

Some of us are already doing so, of course. Paul Hawken’s Blessed Unrest lists countless ongoing projects that could be pieces of a Gandhian “constructive program.” But we need to put all those lovely pieces into a coherent frame—and what better time to do that than on the tenth anniversary of the attack that propelled us into an apparently endless regime of war and violence.

Our Thing-Oriented Civilization

As early as 1909, when Gandhi wrote his classic Hind Swaraj or Indian Home Rule, he seems to have known that even his audacious plan to rescue India from the greatest empire the world had ever known—without using its methods—had a higher purpose: to rescue the modern world itself from its creed (even then outworn) of materialism, the “economy of wants,” and the disempowerment and acquiescence in cruelty that cause perfectly decent people to accept the regime of competition and violence we’re going through today. Liberating India through nonviolence would, Gandhi dared to hope, create an “ocular demonstration” of the untapped power of that method and what it implies about human nature. For the fact that nonviolence works — which it does — makes possible a whole new worldview and radically higher image of the human being. He wrote time and time again that the human being can never be fulfilled without at least striving to realize her or his highest potential: her or his identity with the Supreme Reality, or God. The freedom struggle was only an expression of that deeper truth. It was meant to show the world that individuals can rise to unparalleled heights and sweep resistance before them through the power of heart unity.

There is a “clash of civilizations” that is yet to be resolved, but Samuel Huntington was wrong about which civilizations are involved. It is not “Western civilization” against that of other regions; it’s what Martin Luther King called a “thing-oriented” civilization and a “person-oriented” civilization. It is a struggle to liberate all of us from the humiliating image of the human being—one that’s sustained by the endless propaganda of our powerful mass media—and replace it with something more beautiful and much more true, something that will help us accomplish the “great turning” from revenge to reconciliation, from fear to generosity and compassion.

Nonviolence as “Counter Instance”


Mahatma Gandhi marches with Sarojini Naidu during the Salt Satyagraha of 1930, a powerful, nonviolent challenge to British authority in colonial India. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Gandhi insisted that nonviolence is a science, and he seized upon such glimpses of a higher truth as could be wrung out of the science of his day. For example he pointed to the experiments of N.K. Bose, which showed that plants have a kind of consciousness. Imagine how much he would have made—and we can now make—of science today. Science is dramatically breaking free from the reductionist mold that gave it intoxicating successes in the “control” of nature but prevented it from realizing how dangerous that control was in the hands of painfully immature people. As Martin Luther King said, “We have guided missiles and misguided men.”

Quantum physics, neuroscience, evolution and the life sciences, psychology, game theory, and other areas are all saying that we are more intimately and undeniably interconnected than we had imagined, that cooperation has trumped competition throughout the history of life and that we humans gain far more satisfaction from states of empathy and what is called altruism than we do from “winning” over others. They are showing that life has a deep, as yet unfulfilled meaning, and that searching for this meaning raises us from depression and despair.

This new bent in science (discussed at more length in Tikkun’s November/December 2010 issue) has brought science back in line with the wisdom tradition that threads its way through nearly all human cultures down the ages. For example, the quantum theory of matter/energy, which is fundamental to our understanding of the outside world, takes its place alongside a parallel theory of mind, that is of the inner world, which was known as channika vada (the doctrine of momentariness) by Buddhist scholars. According to this theory of mind, which grew out of earlier hints in the Vedantic tradition and out of the sages’ own experiences in meditation, thoughts are as discontinuous as things and the apparent multiplicity we experience in both the inner and outer worlds is equally deceptive. The quantum nature of the outer world was discovered at the turn of the twentieth century. The parallel theory of the inner world was discovered perhaps five thousand years ago in India. The union of these two great visions is poised to happen now. Such a union could be an incredible breakthrough for a humanity struggling more urgently than ever before to realize the great dream that all life is one.

The “ocular demonstration” of nonviolence, on the one hand, and the breakthrough that is struggling to take place in science on the other, enable us to spell out some of the leading features of the new story — to put a backing and a frame around the newly collected pieces of the apparently shattered mirror of Gandhi’s vision.

1) There is a force that has driven evolution toward higher and higher manifestations of life; in other words, to the unfolding of consciousness. It is in this all-embracing consciousness that we are deeply interconnected, that life is one. That is why war doesn’t work. We have now thrown nearly 4 trillion dollars into two wars where, in the words of a military commander in Iraq, “we are making terrorists faster than we can kill them.” We cannot injure another person—or the life-sustaining system of the planet—without injuring ourselves. This can now be shown in neuroscience and psychology, bearing out what King said: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

2) We are not doomed to compete for rapidly shrinking resources because the resources we really need for our fulfillment—love, wisdom, and respect—are not limited: in some cases they even increase with use.

3) We are not by any means the product of genes, hormones, neurotransmitters, or any other inanimate entity, any more than we are of the position of the stars: we have both responsibility and free will.

4) We have an as-yet-undeveloped capacity for growth. “So far as we know,” wrote neuroscientist Robert Livingston, “the usefulness of cognitive processes such as consciousness, perception, judgment, and volition has not begun to meet any limits.” We have reached severe limits of physical growth, as individuals and a species. But we can expand our awareness of unity, our capacity to serve human well-being and change the world for the better beyond the limits we take for “normal.” This is exactly what Gandhi did.

And speaking of Gandhi, there is a stealth feature of the new story that should not be overlooked. The prevailing story and its human image are a crucial support for policies of violence and reaction. Indeed, these policies have no other support except for an appeal to raw egoism, and they cannot stand up to the scrutiny of either logic or experience. Like khadi, the homespun cloth that seemed innocuous but undermined the economic pillars of the British regime, a sense of who we really are could undermine the present system and all its destructive features.

Love Your Enemy

ground zero

The tenth anniversary of September 11 brings us back to images of ground zero like this one, but it doesn't have to be a day of hatred. Credit: Creative Commons.

September 11 does not have to be a day of patriotic rage. It also presents an opportunity. At the fifth anniversary of September 11, which happened to coincide with the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Satyagraha (nonviolent resistance) in South Africa, we at the Metta Center for Nonviolence published a booklet called Hope or Terror pointing out the road not taken. And this summer we launched a bold project to use the present anniversary to heal and repair, to draw out our latent capacity for reconciliation, and in so doing build the foundations of a long-term campaign that will confront the war system itself. If carried out long and well enough, this campaign could play a significant role in making war a bad dream.

The project is called “Love Your Enemy: A Campaign to Reclaim Human Dignity Through Nonviolence.” It gives voice to the many Americans from all walks of life who, like ourselves, were repelled and alarmed by the gloating over the assassination of Osama bin Laden, the alleged mastermind of the September 11 attacks. It brings together Americans like the group that walked from Washington, D.C., to New York City carrying a banner that said, “Our Grief is not a Cry for War.” Several of the walkers were people who, like myself, had lost loved ones in the attacks on September 11. When the walk ended, they formed “Families for Peaceful Tomorrows,” an enduring reminder that not everyone thinks security comes from threat power.

The project has three distinguishing features that qualify it, we feel, as a piece of Gandhi’s mirror, faithfully reflecting the whole picture:

1)    It is based on personal transformation.

2)    It is not merely symbolic (people get this wrong about Gandhi often) but engages us in constructive work—in this case, on human relationships.

3)    While it will make use of the attention focused on 9/11/11, it will not be a one-off but the start of a long-term campaign.

The core of the campaign is embedded in its arresting name: love your enemy. Not “let them get away with anything”—that’s not love. As a friend of mine said right after the original September 11, “Terrorism cannot be condoned; but it can be understood.” But reach out to someone with whom you’ve had a difficulty, so that you act as a personal model of the behavior we want to see eventually in our society. Acts of forgiveness and reconciliation can be tricky, however. They are always helpful—certainly at least for the forgiver—but given the depth of human consciousness there are often deeper currents of resentment that remain unresolved. In order to make our gestures toward reconciliation real, we have been recommending that participants experiment with a five-part program intended for anyone who wants to embody and co-create the more hopeful world we’ve been discussing:

1)    As far as possible, boycott commercial mass media, with their violence and materialism, and their embarrassingly low image of the human being.

2)    Instead, learn everything we can about nonviolence. Do not take it to be a bundle of tactics, but a way of being and acting that directly counters, and can replace the old story. Taken in this way, nonviolence is actually a culture, fully embracing science and spiritual wisdom. It can replace the culture we have begun to cast aside by boycotting its message-bearers, in step one.

3)    If we haven’t already done so, find a spiritual practice. Meditation can expose the unity that has been covered not only by media messages but the long conditioning of evolution.

4)    Humanize our daily lives: make personal contact wherever possible; think of love and service as our way of being in the world. Human contact, even if not conflict-free, can effectively replace the need for entertainment that drives us into passive media: “one good latte with a friend is worth five bad movies.”

5)    Get involved in a project of peace, social justice, environmental protection, or all of the above. Be idealistic but strategic: where can you really make a difference? The Economic and Social Responsibility Amendment is a natural choice.

Efforts to humanize our daily lives can unfold into the eponymous exercise of the Love Your Enemy project: patching up a soured relationship. Start with a relatively easy relationship to address, like a neighbor with whom you’ve disagreed over where his dog answers the call of nature. Build up at your own pace to more serious disagreements. Remember, the goal is not to win over the other person, though that would be lovely. Rather, it’s primarily to win over the alienation in your own mind. As St. Augustine said, “Imagine thinking your enemy can do you more damage than your enmity.”

The Metta Center is acting as a hub for sharing stories about successes with all this, especially such reconciliations, by conducting regular conference calls and a blog. All this is preparation for a nationwide campaign of nonviolent resistance centered around September 11.

A Nationwide Satyagraha

We’re calling on people interested in nonviolent social transformation to observe the following on the three days surrounding September 11:


"We can expand our awareness of unity, our capacity to serve human well-being," the author writes. "That is exactly what Gandhi did." Credit: Creative Commons.

September 10: A “media fast” and, for those inclined to do so, a day of silence in shared grief and commemoration for the dead and for the attendant violence that has caused and is causing the death of so many.

September 11: Call on public places to turn off inflammatory media and instead engage in dialogue about the causes of terrorism and the basis of real security. Have a look at the discussion points on the Metta Center’s website.

September 12: Participate in a nationwide conversation to share further stories and plan next steps. Be in touch (email to join that conversation.

In the end, the real freedom struggle is the struggle to free ourselves from hatred and alienation; as King said, “I will never let anyone bring me so low as to make me hate him.” Gandhi added his characteristic practicality by saying, “I have learned from bitter experience the one supreme lesson to conserve my anger, and as steam conserved is converted into energy, anger conserved can be turned into a force that can change the world.” Love Your Enemy is a chance to carry out just such an “experiment with truth”: to turn the sting of September 11 into a step on the long road forward toward beloved community and peace.


One thought on “September 11 and Satyagraha

  1. Excellent article, very well suited to 9/11’s 10th anniversary. Still, it misses the very important call for readers to inform themselves about the roots and ramifications of 9/11. Sadly, the reference to Osama bin Laden as the alleged 9/11 mastermind is out of place. It has inspired much hatred and many misunderstandings, but most independent 9/11 analysts have concurred that OBL had very little to do with 9/11. 9/11 was, first and foremost, a grand and very sinister Platonic act. Worse, it is still being acted and many well-meaning leaders, including apparently Nagler, are unknowingly acting in it. More at