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The Hardest Questions

From sorrow and anger will come a renewal of citizens' power to lead the nation, even in uncertain times, says author Paul Rogat Loeb.


According to Loeb, patriotism has nothing to do with magnetic flags and chain e-mails, and everything to do with openly communicating those "private doubts" — about war, vengeance and the world as it stands one year after tragedy struck. "Being a patriot," he says, "is asking the hardest questions at the most difficult time."

And he says now is that time. On Sept. 11, Loeb, an author of four books on achieving social change, speaks at the University of Richmond about how "ordinary citizens" can seek justice in a world turned upside down. He hopes to "honor the weight of the moment," he says, while also convincing Richmonders that grassroots citizen involvement can prevent what he calls "dangerous and shortsighted decisions by the current administration."

"He's not a household name, but his ideas are very important," says Sue Robinson Sain, community programs coordinator for the Jepson School of Leadership Studies at UR, which is sponsoring Loeb's talk. "Basically, he makes a very clear and convincing case that one person can make a difference."

The phrase "making a difference" may sound trite to some, but "I think it's very real," Sain says — and especially important for young people to hear. Loeb's book "Soul of a Citizen: Living With Conviction in a Cynical Time" is required reading for many UR students.

In "Breaking the Cycle of Vengeance," an essay published one month after the Twin Towers fell, Loeb wrote: "I fear that this tragedy will pave the way for needless and provocative military buildups and interventions that will spawn further spirals of vengeance."

"But it doesn't have to be this way," he continued. "Imagine if these terrible events inspired us all to take on the difficult work of creating a more just world, and making the necessary common investments so indiscriminate violence and needless suffering do not prevail."

Easy to say, right? And hard to do. That's why on a day of remembrance, Loeb will ask Richmonders to look ahead and speak up. "Unless citizens get considerably more involved than they have been so far," he says, "we're going to have some disastrous policies."

He's not accusing people of apathy: "My sense is that there's a lot of concern, but people haven't found ways to voice it," Loeb says. He preaches a philosophy of "deliberate, incremental action" as the way to social and political change. Write a letter to the editor, he urges. Hold a debate. Discuss current affairs in the next PTA meeting. Any concrete act undertaken by an individual has significance, he says.

For example, he says, the fact that Virginia's Sen. John Warner has raised questions about going to war with Iraq shows "he's amenable to being pushed," Loeb says. In numbers, Virginians' voices will be heeded, he says. "In my mind, that should make people feel very powerful."

Some scoff, but Loeb believes in the power of "village politics": bringing debates into ordinary institutions like churches, soccer clubs or neighborhood associations.

"Richmond has a reputation as a pretty conservative city," Loeb says, "so in some ways it matters more." When things start to change in places that aren't widely known as hotbeds of activism, "you know that it's really rippling through the country," he says. "In a way, people should feel more empowered."

His goal, he says, is to restore the extraordinary atmosphere he witnessed after 9/11, when Americans talked honestly and freely about the tragedy that had occurred while coping with feelings of vulnerability and grief.

One year ago, Loeb was sitting in a guest room at a small Baptist college in Alabama, preparing to give an oft-delivered speech about social responsibility.

Then the phone rang. A voice told him, "You better turn on the TV, because everything is going to be changed."

Loeb had only a few moments to reflect before walking up to the podium. Many students had not yet heard about the attacks, so he announced what had just happened. The students gathered to pray and asked for a blessing for Loeb. "I thought, 'Yeah, I need all the help I can get,'" he says.

Faced with a shocked and grieving crowd, Loeb spoke about the situation "as best as I understood it," he says. He sought to offer comfort but also context, asking, "What are we going to do about it? Let's think."

Rage, sorrow, confusion and fear, but also hope and thoughtful discussion, poured forth from the students, he says. That honesty wasn't confined to campuses. "Right after the attacks, I think it opened all of us up. It was wrenching," Loeb says.

That time ended, he says, when the public was hit with a barrage of "pounding propaganda" saying America is righteous and must destroy its enemies. "That closed off those harder questions about 'How do you create a world where people won't do this?'"

In his speech, Loeb says, "I'll give people some tools for doing that." He adds, "I also think they'll get some hope." S

Paul Rogat Loeb speaks Wed., Sept. 11, at 7:30 p.m. in the Modlin Center for the Arts at UR. For tickets, which are free but required, call 289-8980. The public is also invited to a discussion with Loeb and Richmond leaders from 4-5:30 p.m. in the Jepson Alumni Center. The discussion is titled "Living a Life that Matters: Reflections on Citizenship and Change."

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