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United? Let’s act like it.

Note: Views expressed in this post are that of Sandy Heierbacher and don’t necessarily reflect or represent those of NCDD members.

Osama Bin Laden has been killed nearly 10 years after the worst terrorist attack on American soil in our history.  I remember well how united we felt as Americans after September 11, 2001.  I’m sure every President has called for a “United America” at one time or another — Clinton had a “One America” initiative focused on uniting Americans across racial lines; Bush focused on the need for a “strong and united” America after 9-11, and Obama talks about the importance of working together across partisan lines in almost every speech.

Yet I can’t remember feeling as if we were truly a United country since those first few days after 9-11.  Then we were told to “go shopping” to keep the economy strong — and as the economy spiraled downward anyway, partisan politics seemed to get sharper and nastier, dividing us further into separate camps rather than uniting us.

In his speech last night, Obama reminded us of that fleeting feeling that we were united as Americans:

On September 11, 2001, in our time of grief, the American people came together. We offered our neighbors a hand, and we offered the wounded our blood. We reaffirmed our ties to each other, and our love of community and country. On that day, no matter where we came from, what God we prayed to, or what race or ethnicity we were, we were united as one American family.

And then toward the end of his speech, Obama said:

And tonight, let us think back to the sense of unity that prevailed on 9/11. I know that it has, at times, frayed. Yet today’s achievement is a testament to the greatness of our country and the determination of the American people.

Today, many of us are feeling united.  “We” – America – overcame an enemy who had hurt us collectively more than any other individual in recent history.  This isn’t a liberal milestone or a conservative milestone — it’s an American milestone.  Being reminded of the fear and pain we all felt on 9-11, many of us have that fleeting sense that “we’re in this together” again.  But can we hold on to that sense of unity in such polarizing times?

Our deepening political division is dangerous to our country’s health.  Since 9-11 it has seemed like the American Dream has become much more of, well, a dream.  Most Americans view our political leaders as lacking the ability to collaborate or even communicate effectively across partisan lines.  Our most urgent problems seem even more unsolvable because of our inability to come together civilly and discuss issues and potential solutions in depth with all “sides.”

I work in a field that is trying to change that.  We work to bring people together across political, ethnic, generational, economic and ideological divides — sometimes political leaders, sometimes everyday citizens, sometimes both.  The idea is that if we can truly hear each other’s stories, and learn why they hold the values and opinions they do (we call this “dialogue”), that we’ll be better able to consider differing opinions on how our most challenging problems should be handled (“deliberation”) — weighing the trade-offs that are inherent in every decision that could be made.

It’s about sitting down and working together, like grown ups, to accomplish something we can only accomplish together, united.  It’s not rocket science, and it can sound a bit fluffy and idealist.  But actually, it’s just how we learn to deal with all the things that make us human — emotions, pride, values, opinions, perspectives, science, media, facts — and still get things done.  In politics, it’s the best way to make lasting decisions and policies (rather than policies the other side overturns as soon as they’re able to), because you create buy-in and trust for policies that don’t compromise people’s core values.

It’s just common sense, really.  But it doesn’t play into our media’s need for conflict or our politicians’ need for the Lone Ranger heroics that help them get re-elected.  So it’s just not the way business is generally done in Washington.

People are coming together like this in communities across the country, though, at the local and regional level (where partisan politics are less debilitating) to solve contentious, complex problems.  Problems like land disputes, depletion of natural resources like water, dealing with city budget cuts (and/or tax increases), preventing violent crime and bullying in schools.

Orange NCDD LogoThe National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation (NCDD) website at www.ncdd.org is a great place to go to read about such projects, learn about the various methods people are using, and connect with organizations and facilitators who can help you.  Here are a few places to start:

Email me at sandy@thataway.org if you’d like to stay updated on NCDD’s work. And check out our social media page at www.ncdd.org/social for all the ways you can get involved!

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Sandy Heierbacher
Sandy Heierbacher co-founded the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation (NCDD) with Andy Fluke in 2002, with the 60 volunteers and 50 organizations who worked together to plan NCDD’s first national conference. She served as NCDD's Executive Director between 2002 and 2018. Click here for a list of articles and resources authored by Sandy.

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  1. Alan Seale says:

    Thanks for your post, Sandy, and this call to unity. I so appreciate your call to all of us to sit down and listen to one another. When we make clear choices about who will be in relationship to what is going on and in relationship to each other in the service of a greater good, amazing things can happen.

  2. […] You can read her full post here: How can we remain United? […]

  3. Alice Leibowitz says:

    It's painful for me to think that a political assassination would be the force to unite us as a country. Osama Bin Laden was a person with an important message as well. It's dreadful that his colleagues used violence as the means of spreading that message, but I don't feel any better when the United States uses violence as its mode of communication than I do when Al Quaeda does. As much as I yearn for unity in America, I hope it will not be unity in hate. True openness to dialog has to reach across borders and even to those who have hurt us. Let us not celebrate the killing of a fellow human being. Prevention of these acts is why we do this work.

  4. Heierbacher: Dialogue and Deliberation as the Basis for Sustainable Decision Making…

    Sandy Heierbacher, Director of the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation (NCDD), gives a nice two-paragraph summary this morning of what her organization’s work is all about: […] Our most urgent problems seem even more unsolvable bec…

  5. Gary Shapiro says:


    I am very glad, as most people, that Osama Bin Laden will no longer be able to harm anyone. However, I am very concerned with how this event is being perceived and responded to, including some aspects of your response.

    First of all, killing someone who's done harm is not justice – at least not in the sense of justice as restorative, healing, accountability, recognizing and addressing root causes, and mercy. Rather it is a notion of justice as revenge. That is nothing to celebrate. I feel sad when I hear Obama, you, and others calling what happened justice.

    (continued in next post)

  6. Gary Shapiro says:

    Part 2 of reply to Sandy's posting –

    Second, the kind of unity that results from killing a hated enemy is a very superficial one that is more of a release of tension and fear, a short-term feel-good high, rather than a true unity around common purpose, deep connection, empathy, and willingness to engage one another in an open, tolerant, and thoughtful way. Watch what happens to people who try to express a view different from today's prevailing mob-narrative. What's happening today is more a USA group-think jingoistic aren't we great we're #1, rather than a recognition of our common bond with people around the world, regardless of nationality.

    Third, Osama is mainly a symptom of the deeper psycho-social-cultural-political root causes of terrorism. Killing him does little or nothing to address those root causes. If all those celebrating were truly willing to unite around a commitment to address those root causes – that might actually move us forward, and that would be something to celebrate!

  7. Dennis Boyer says:

    In light of the disposition of the Osama problem I can say what I said when Tim McVeigh was executed, "he won't be missed by me".

    But as a Vietnam veteran and chapter service officer for Disabled American Veterans I have a certain amount of caution about appeals for unity coming out of a context of bloodshed. I understand Super Bowl euphoria (I live in WI), but recognize that binding up and treating wounds is a long term process. I'll probably be helping Afghanistan and Iraq vets with disability claims until my cognitive lights dim beyond usefulness.

    It's the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War. I'm not sure we've bound up those wounds yet. In WI we really got a glimpse of what is at the heart of some of these cultural and political conflicts in American society.

    We have a "winner-take-all" approach to politics that brings out the authoritarian nature of many "leaders" as they claim illusory mandates. One initial task of the D&D community may be to help create more live and let live space. If a state wanted to secede today might not the best thing be to let it go?

  8. The previous comments are overly gentle. To call the work of a Special Forces hit squad "an American victory" and an inspiration for us all to work together seems little short of perverse. Bin Laden was a violent wrongdoer who misrepresented Islam. The U.S. government is a violent wrongdoer which misrepresents Democracy. The unity we have long needed is a united determination to end the American Empire and bring a halt to its endless foreign and internal wars.

    • Lokken says:

      Very well said, Richard.

    • Lucas Cioffi says:

      Richard, you write, "The U.S. government is a violent wrongdoer which misrepresents Democracy."

      In my opinion, your statement is incomplete and misrepresents the US government. In all honesty, do you think your statement tells the entire truth about the US government's role in democracy promotion?

  9. Carrie Stewart says:

    As someone commented on my reporting of this blog, we won’t be able to come together until our differences, and the hurt and mistreatment because of them, are acknowledged. This is what we must have the courage and humility and forgiveness to come to the table to do.

    • lucas says:

      I agree, Carrie, and I'll point out that there are differences, hurt, and mistreatment among several groups all wrapped up in this one narrative about bin Laden:
      -left and right in American politics
      -the West and Islam
      -Muslims and political Islamists
      -Sunni and Shiite Muslims

      This is an opportunity for new chapters in many of the relationships across these fault lines. Let's hope for (and work toward!) chapters that we will be proud of.

  10. Marc Brenman says:

    Hi Sandy, I'm not comfortable with using the killing of Osama Bin Laden as a vehicle for pushing anyone's agenda, even a basically sound one like NCDD. I'm also not comfortable with euphemisms like "took down someone." We killed because he killed. Until we use honest and straightforward language, we're going to be talking around each other and not being completely honest. As to the title of the blogpost, "How can we remain United," well, we aren't united now, and weren't then. 9/11 was used as an excuse to treat Arab-Americans, Muslims, Sikhs, and anyone with an "Arab-sounding" name badly. Things are still bad in that way, perhaps worse. While you may feel that the work of the NCDD is succeeding, I feel and observe that the country is falling apart and well into a new dark age. For all the good work of the NCDD and similar organizations, other groups like the Tea Partiers, their supporters, and other haters are driving us apart, dismantling the social safety net, making things harder for women, children, minorities, union members, immigrants, people with disabilities, the aged, and many others.
    Marc Brenman

  11. Brett says:

    The truth is disunity serves the people who have the power over our politicians and media establishments. It doesn't take much of a read of history to see where all this is coming from, and what purpose it serves. The Reagan Administration went after fairness doctrines in the FCC and worked afterward very hard to setup the conditions so that media, publishing, entertainment enterprises could fall into fewer and fewer hands.

    They also worked to equate money with "free speech" (which too many of us evidently bought) so now they can use money to seed discord and disharmony. That in turn allowed more cash to roll into efforts to use Religion, gay rights, women's rights, immigration, etc. to turn wage earning schmucks against each other on the basis of many made up issues. Religion has always served to do this. But, notice the "pro life" movement never once made a move with all that "money as speech" money for a living wage for young women and men, or stable communities at the lowest rungs of out totem poles so these young people in the most vulnerable communities really could start families with dignity. Instead, they want to manufacture enemies. We have all better learn to see through this divide-and-rule because we are all now divided-and-ruled. $21T in US capital made here but now in offshore banks controlled by 1% or less of our citizens if proof enough of how we've all been taken, while blaming each other for the nation's ills. We have all been had by our own weakness for judging others before judging ourselves!

    Just read any history book about how the Hapsburg's kept the Austro-Hungarian empire in their grip, Hohenzollern's and Romanov's kept their respective multi-cultural empires in theirs. We need to stop saying nice platitudes and writing appeals for unity, when the mechanisms for disunity are firmly in the hands of the people who history shows profit the most from these end-game strategies. It is not only about trying to bring the hurt and aggrieved together to reconcile differences that were made up and exacerbated in the first place by people who have control to setup the unequal and unstable economic conditions that start these balls of disunity rolling in the first place.

    I totally agree call for unity. call for healing differences. And call for fixing the structural mechanisms used by the wealthiest and most politically powerful to destroy us like any Royals ever did in Europe before WWI and WWII took away their political power once and for all.

  12. I'm glad to see so many thoughtful comments on this post, even from those of you who don't agree with my premise or framing! I'll post more reflections later (I have to take my nephew to track practice now)…

    I changed the wording at the beginning from "brought to justice" to simply "killed." I agree with the comments from a few people here and via email on this. I used that terminology simply because I'm not used to writing about such matters and it seemed less harsh. But you're right; it wasn't accurate.

  13. Sharon says:

    I found the cheering outside the White House disturbing. This is such a sober time – they acted like it was a football game and some team had won – we are still involved in a deadly war with death of our soldiers and of civilians – children included
    I am very uncomfortable with killing for any reason – I cannot support the death penalty. I don't think I have the right to take a life.

  14. Isthisthetruth? says:

    I do not think all is as it's portrayed. I hope every one looks a little further than just what main stream media is saying. Look at everything going on in the world and connect the dots – pretty much creating a massive control grid. And it's not in our favor. Let truth be revealed – is my own prayer. We just need to dig a little deeper for that and not accept everything at face value. Question authority. Remember that bumper sticker? There are a lot of fraud and lies going on at all levels. Pray for discernment, then I believe we can unite in an honest and powerful way.

  15. kootzie says:

    The whole Osama bin Laden thing is an insignificant blip
    compared with the organized attack on the Twin Towers,
    with the complicity of the American government, as a
    pretext for expansionism of the Manifest Destiny variety,
    and to usher in a new era of the curtailing of personal
    freedoms via Homeland Security/TSA/etc

    9/11 was an inside job. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zENYdo_ZE3Y
    OK Obama you got Osama, how about now get the Truth
    and set it free?

  16. Given all these comments, I'm wondering if I was too hasty with my post. It seemed like one of those "media moments" (especially given what Obama said about unity during his speech last night) that our field should/could jump on to increase awareness of dialogue and deliberation. Oftentimes, it seems like those moments pass us by, and we regret not having tried to make a connection between what's on people's minds and what we WANT on people's minds (using D&D to bring together all sides and solve our problems more effectively).

    I can relate to those expressing discomfort (and more) at the idea of using someone's death to promote American unity or to bring attention to the work in our field — which is often associated with peace building rather than war and terror. I'm going to re-think how I worded some things and see if I can make my argument without making that connection.

    I live in a very conservative area, though, and it's SO RARE to feel any sense of unity between parties here. I was feeling that sense of unity (that "we are Americans; we're in this together" feeling) a bit last night and this morning, and it reminded me of how we felt after 9-11. This post was an attempt at revisiting that feeling of unity, and framing our work in the dialogue & deliberation community as a means of making that "we're in this together" feeling real and long-term — so we can address our enormous problems more effectively.

    • Brett says:

      This kind of thing is as old as the hills. The media product makers know exactly what they are doing with our emotions when they amplify this kind of thing manufactured by the government in the pockets of military contractors and their bankers. The emotional euphoria is completely predictable as things get tougher and tougher economically for ordinary people. This is the beauty of "nationalism" and was used by Hapsburg, Hohenzollern, and Romanov in the final twilight years of their respective empires. It seeded the negative energy that was needed in the 1900s to generate the very profitable wars that ensured. There are many lessons for all of us in this case as it unfolds and we begin to see clearly our individual and collective responses.

    • John Backman says:

      Sandy, I completely get your point about urgency and "jumping on those media moments." This is one of my biggest challenges as a writer: by the time I've digested the media moment into something that makes sense to me–not to mention putting it into coherent prose–the blogosphere is already drowning in related posts. Anything I add at that point is either old news or swept away in the media tide.

      I have an alternative thought, and I'd be interested in hearing your reactions. Dialogue, by its very nature, takes time and reflection. Instead of responding instantly, according to the media's demands, would we do better to model that reflection by waiting until the first wave of furor subsides, and then expressing our (hopefully more reflective, more well-considered) perspectives? Do we need a combination of both: urgency and reflection? Or different approaches at different times?

  17. Billyboy says:

    Seems as though the American people are asleep. Osama has been gone for almost 10 years. Do some research listen to Buhoto when she spoke in India she explained that Osama has been dead for some time. This is just to make Obama look good as it is election time coming up. Time for more change. Just take time to think , with the technology today they can pin point your position anywhere in the world by satelitte surveillance systems that are more accurate that we would like to think. Everything from mainstream news is a lie or very close.

    • Brett says:

      Not "just Obama". It totally takes the news day away from any May Day news about the conditions of Labor in this country, and the declining USD.

      "Obama" has to look good for his UBS and Honeywell donors who profit immensely from these ongoing taxpayer supported (taxpayer's kids supported) war debts! All Americans need to be deflecting from what is really happening to their country. Killing Bin Laden today, or resurrecting his frozen body today, is perfect timing to keep our eyes off what really matters, and stoke our emotions toward destructive nationalism.

      We all need to start to see through the mirror tricks here! The news media will present all of this in ONE way! NBC, CNBC, and MSNBC are owned by GE (now Comcast 51%) and Microsoft. Two of the US govt's biggest customers with GE the oldest military contractor there is. ABC owned by Disney and the Richardson family of Texas (get it subsidized oil and military support all over the world), CBS owned by Viacom and Sumner Redstone (conservative), CNN owned by Time Warner (with Ted Turner a major shareholder), and Fox owned by News Corporation owned by Murdoch and Prince al-Waleed bin Talal. Now what could all those owners have in common? And what could they all NOT have in common with us?

  18. Andy says:


    Please do not feel the need to rephrase or reframe your perspective. You have started a discussion the likes of which we must get used to. How can we be with each other with vastly different points of view without seeking to make ourselves right and the other wrong? We must listen, pause and contemplate the other POV. Perhaps that is enough. 

    It is the danger of dogma, collective fear, hate and a misplaced euphoria that united many after the attacks on 911 and took them to the streets in the Middle East to celebrate the death of 3.000 plus soles on American soil. Sadly, WE also took to the streets to celebrate and have taken to the airwaves to relish the story of the death of Osama and desperately we call it “unity”. It is but a sad unity when we need to kill our enemy to define our oneness. 

    War, regardless of our politics, is a dangerous and unsustainable way to move us forward. We can relish our synchronized action, and aligned ideology but rarely do we look at each other in the throws of battle and value each other after the war is done.

    Let us be reminded that there is a hateful movement that would deny the success, and in some quarters, the very existence of our own President because he dares to lead and make his home at the White House. They have appeared at rallies armed to the teeth with weapons wrapped in their constitutional right. 

    Beware if we believe that the best solution to disagreement is to slay the enemy; because one day they will come for us because we are too black, too gay, too liberal, too fat, and so on. 

    Make no mistake that I too am relieved that the person we believe is the mastermind behind a long protracted plan for the annihilation of our culture is gone. Nonetheless I pray for myself that in this false comfort I have not lost my grace, wisdom or humanity. 

    • @kennysnyder says:

      I agree, this is an important discussion to have and Andy's first paragraph is an eloquent framing of what should be one of the central tenets of dialogue. Well put. The challenge is creating a platform where diverse perspectives come together to discuss these issues. I think we will loose 90% of our potential audience if the conversation centers on the wrong-doings of America. Do we have a window of opportunity here to draw in broader participation and ask the question "What Now?"

  19. Alice Leibowitz says:

    It warms my heart to sense support from this community for my concerns about celebrating Bin Laden's death. For many months after 9/11, I was afraid to express my political viewpoints publicly for fear of being killed by fellow Americans or disappeared by the government. I've never felt that way at any other time, or over any other issue. I'm glad to find an oasis where it's safe to see the other side.

  20. John Carroll says:

    I am so very proud of what our Navy Seals accomplished, and of our President. I also appreciate Sandy's call to use the killing of Osama as an opportunity to unite as a nation, the way some of us felt after 9/11. Our purpose is historical – to be the first to leap the curve as a civilization and rather than declining, to become and even better America for all Americans.

  21. Richard says:

    Andy wrote: How can we be with each other with vastly different points of view without seeking to make ourselves right and the other wrong? We must listen, pause and contemplate the other POV. Perhaps that is enough.

    I believe that this is the crux of our dis-unity, this and our insane need for tangible results. It is truly difficult and humbling to sit with those whose thoughts, feelings, experiences and expressions differ deeply from my own. It requires courage, tremendous energy, and deep trust (perhaps more in the process than the people) to truly reflect on perspectives that challenge mine – especially when fear and hostility dominate the emotions behind the perspectives. It requires equal courage and energy for many to engage in such conversation and detach from any need for measureable results.

    Perhaps that's more a reflection on me than on the norm. Or perhaps it is a reflection on the type of interaction that we have come to understand as "normal" in western civilization.

    Continued in next post.

  22. Richard says:

    I recently heard a colleague share her experience of a tribal council meeting. Instead of discussing, deliberating, dialoguing or debating (all different things, granted), they simply took turns speaking. As one spoke, sometimes for lengthy periods of time, all others listened. When the one had finished speaking, silence was allowed to fill the space. After a time, another spoke. Instead of responding to previous comments, each person simply spoke his truth.

    Perhaps one place to start is simply by starting? Who is currently convening groups of people with vastly diverse and polarizing perspectives, and faciliating a space in wich each can simply be with the other? A space in which no outcome is expected, other than we all leave feeling streched, challenged, heard, and perahps even valued and enriched?

    I would truly value such an experience!

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