“An enemy is one whose story we have not yet heard.”– Gene Knudsen Hoffman

This paper is a response to some questions Bob Banner sent to me. They were given to me as an opportunity to sit back and discover what I’m thinking about last Tuesday’s [911, 2001] shocking and tragic news, whether this might be a new era with new creativity and thought or whether we’ll settle back into old patterns of conquer and destroy.

1. What do you think of this media craze focussing on vengeance and military action against an unknown enemy?

I feel this is a reaction, not a response. It’s an attitude which is being encouraged by our government, I’m afraid.

I feel anger is a healthy response to an act of violence against something or someone we love – but it isn’t the determining factor in how we should behave. I think anger is also a reaction to danger, to fear, but it’s not the response which is needed. I hope we have evolved far enough to realize there are other paths to take, that we need to explore them, and to talk publicly, freely about them.

I don’t know whether we are having a “media craze,” whether the media is now being controlled by some corporate or governmental powers. What I do feel is that not presenting a variety of opinions to the public is a disservice. I feel we need “open mikes” which encourage diversity because there are other ways to go.
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2. Do you think your work with Compassionate Listening is impossible to implement at this critical juncture, or do you at least contemplate it as a possibility?

I think wherever we find someone who will encourage us to listen, we should listen, and we should listen to both sides. I also think we should make “radically new responses to the radically new situation of a world where violence is mindless, hopeless, and meaningless. I feel we must move beyond initiatives we formerly used, into realms we have not yet considered, and not yet discovered.” We Americans have a gift for listening to the oppressed and disenfranchised.

That’s very important, but can we begin to listen to our “enemies”?

One of the new steps I think we can take is Compassionate Listening, a new international program I conceived in the ’80s, which is now doing remarkable things in the Middle East and in Alaska, Washington, and other States, as well as Canada. Compassionate Listening means we listen to people who differ wildly from us with the same openness, non-judgment, and compassion we bring to those with whom our sympathies lie. Everyone has a partial truth, and we must listen, discern, and acknowledge this partial truth in everyone – particularly those with whom we disagree.

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The ultimate goal of Compassionate Listening is to bring both sides together to listen to one another and, hopefully, they will make compromises – as they have after a year-and-a-half being listened to in Alaska, as they are beginning to in small pockets in the Middle East. This is called reconciliation.

If we want to do this today, we will need training for it. In October there will be on the website ( [doesnt exist anymore] the new pamphlet I’ve written called Compassionate Listening: An Evolutionary Sourcebook [], which will take you step-by-step through the process and prepare you to go out and do it. It’s free to anyone who wishes to take it off the web, and the beginning of listening compassionately will be to go from door to door with a brief questionnaire on whether people want war now or do not want it and why.

3. You frequently say that “An enemy is one whose story we have not yet heard.” What do you mean by that? Do you contend that terrorists have resorted to violence because their stories have not been heard?

Yes. I do contend. I think a terrorist is someone who thinks his/her grievances will never be heard and never addressed, and I think that causes deep pain and anger which is an invitation to violence. I believe violence is caused by our unhealed wounds. I think not being heard and not being listened to is a grave wound. I think it can easily escalate to violence in any one.

There is a quotation by the poet Longfellow which I refer to in times of stress and which I believe confirms my opinion about our need to listen to everyone and anyone, “If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each person’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.” And we should listen to both sides before going to war.

4. You’ve been speaking lately about creating a solid group of citizens who would present genuinely alternatives to our Administration and Bush’s policies. Can you tell us more about this new project?

I think so, but it will be abbreviated. I’ve long been considering what formerly was called “The Shadow Government in England.” That’s a group of people who seriously consider the initiatives of the British government and, if they do not approve them, they devise new initiatives and publicize them in various ways, sometimes taking them directly to Parliament.

I think we should create such groups in our cities and villages, of people who will come together to work on new laws, new initiatives they feel are in harmony with what people need, with truth, or with our Bill of Rights and Constitution. Each time they read a proposal with which they do not agree, they call together their group and brainstorm until they create a proposal they prefer. Then they seek to get it into the media: newspapers, radio, TV – and if they can’t – they make fliers and go door-to-door to hand it out. I think, if alternatives are available to people, they might reconsider. I have a long name for this proposal, but it says exactly what I think we might do. It’s called Concerned Citizens’ Alternative Solutions.

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Leah Green and Gene Hoffman (see Leah’s Memoriam Tribute to Gene HERE

5. During the hot crisis our government had with Qadaffi and Libya, you actually went to Libya to speak to his administration and to listen to their grievances. Can you tell us why you went there and what happened when you returned?

After the 1986 bombing of the Libyan city Tripoli in an effort to kill Colonel Muammar Qadaffi, I wrote a personal letter to him, expressing my grief at the violence, the loss of lives, and specifically the loss of his little daughter. Remarkably Qadaffi wrote me back, thanking me, and added an angry condemnation of our military action.

Then, in January 1989, when the United States shot down two Libyan planes, the editor of the Fellowship of Reconciliation magazine, Virginia Baron, called me because I had written my first article about Compassionate Listening and she published it. She asked me if we should send a Compassionate Listening team to listen to the Libyans. I was enthusiastic and so was she. She began to visit Ambassador Treikki at the United Nations and told him of our plans. He was enthusiastic and on June 27, 1989, fifteen of us began an act of Civil Disobedience and with the aid of a Libyan plane that picked us up in Rome, we were flown to Tripoli, ensconced in the Kabir Hotel, and stayed there ten days.

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An image found at The Compassionate
Listening Project Facebook page:

Next morning we met with a Libyan delegation of 15 men – all outstanding in Libya – in a lovely, spacious room and began our exploration. We all told them why we had come and when I said I wanted to know about Libyans, who they were, what their government was like, how they lived, what they ate for breakfast, they shouted in one voice, “Cornflakes!” and our meeting opened in gales of laughter.

When Virginia saw they were all men, she asked where the women were? We were quickly joined by Salma Abdul Jabbar, a teacher of philosophy at Tripoli University, and Rawhia Kara, Libya’s leading feminist and associate Professor of English at Tripoli University. We met more women later. We described ourselves as the Libyan Listening project and they dubbed us as “The Committee of Good Intentions.”

We learned that Libya was nothing like we had been told in the American media. It was an active, progressive nation. They had developed universities and the students were 60% women and 40% men. They wanted to come to the United States for more education; they had released all their political prisoners; they were well read and aware.

One of Qadaffi’s lesser loved laws was that no movies or television were allowed in Libya – everyone had to participate in pleasures like dancing, playing music, or listening to the radio and reading. We soon learned that young people had an underground way of getting videos and video players and they saw the latest movies of the U.S. They also liked the participation practiced in their country.

Finally it was time to go home. We did, after being feted in every city in Libya where our planes landed. When we arrived home we went to our government, eager to tell what we had learned. We discovered we were not permitted to speak to any member of our government in Washington for we had gone to Libya illegally and it was against the law for anyone to listen to us. So we wrote our articles, spoke on radio and TV and could not follow up on our Libyan visit because there was a ban on Libyans coming to the United States and we were considered and were – lawbreakers.

6. Do you think the people in the United States are ready to listen to our enemies or to our own diverse citizens for that matter?

I believe some people in the United States are ready to listen to their “enemies” and those are people who realize that unless we do, we will never be able to make a real peace with them. I don’t know if the US government is ready to listen to their own citizens on the planning for war or peace question.

On Friday, September 14, we had a meeting at the Sola House to brainstorm what to do about the war our President has proposed and our Congress and Senate have approved as a reality. We listened to people of varying opinions. Some expressed their anger, some their grief, some their hope for a new era. No one wanted war, and each sought new ideas for how they could perform actions which would bring them face-to-face in deliberations with one another. In the end we felt we could listen to everyone’s story, from our president to the most ardent peace person, and try to perceive the truths in each one of them.

The next test will be trying to do it.

Gene Knudsen Hoffman’s articles of her work for peace, reconciliation and compassionate can be found at
If you don’t have access to the web check out her Ways Out: The Book of Changes for Peace. It is edited by her and includes many short pieces that deal with Personal, Regional and Global Ways Out… focusing on Violence, Divorce, South Africa, Reconciliation, the Middle East, Wars, Terrorism, Models for World Peace, Healing Alternatives, Weapons…. Contributors include Fran Peavey, Robert Muller, Thich Nhat Hanh, Chellis Glendining, Frank Kelly, Joanna Macy and Wendell Berry among many others whose short vignettes are inspiring as they are practical.
Call 800-662-8351 for details. Ms. Hoffman is also a regular columnist at HopeDance

the above was written in 2001. To learn more about her work, please visit:


Compassionate Listening: A First Step to Reconciliation

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