A little more than a year ago, while working in the Netherlands, David Silver observed two things that changed the focus of his life - and, he hopes, could change the tenor of public discourse in America.
"I noticed in Amsterdam that the Dutch media were reporting on subjects I'd never seen in America," he says. "And when I'd go out and talk with friends, I noticed that they were all talking about things that mattered."
When he returned to the United States, he wanted Americans to have the same kinds of spirited yet polite conversations he'd had in Amsterdam.
The idea of Americans with vastly differing opinions engaging in constructive dialogue became a fixation for Dr. Silver, an assistant professor of communications at the University of Washington. One evening, as he walked past the construction site of Seattle's new central library, he had an epiphany: Libraries are free, he thought, and they exist in communities big and small across the country.
Not earth-shattering, as epiphanies go. Yet from this has grown the September Project (www.theseptemberproject.org), a national day of dialogue about democracy, citizenship, and patriotism - pegged to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Saturday, at more than 450 sites in at least 48 states and seven countries, Americans will have the chance to gather, discuss, remember, commemorate, and - ideally - rediscover the tradition of town-hall discourse, the opposite of shock talk radio.
"It's been three years since the tragic events of 2001," notes Silver, "and I think people are finally ready to talk about issues that matter."
The catalog of events is as disparate as America itself:
• At the University of Washington's Suzzallo Library, official documents used by filmmaker Michael Moore to create the controversial documentary, "Fahrenheit 9/11," will be available to participants. Using these documents, citizens will have the chance to create their own versions of the allegations Mr. Moore's film makes about President Bush.
• In Omaha, Neb., church bells will toll at 9 a.m., and the city will commemorate the victims of Sept. 11 with a moment of silence. Throughout the day at its 10 libraries, buglers will play taps, Opera Omaha will sing patriotic songs, and citizens can sign up for 15-minute slots, during which they may participate in marathon readings of the Constitution, the Gettysburg Address, the Declaration of Independence, Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream" speech, and other seminal American documents.
• In Benbrook, Texas (pop. 23,000), librarians have constructed a model of the World Trade Center festooned with small flags, each representing 10 of the 9/11 victims. The library will also screen the 30-minute documentary, "Can Democracy Survive?" and participants can later discuss quotes about democracy and the poem, "When The Bill of Rights Comes Due," by librarian Michael Baldwin.
• At the Forbes Library in Northampton, Mass., children will e-mail messages to children at the Boulevard Park Library in suburban Seattle. Children there will reply with handwritten messages and drawings.
• At the Marine Corps Air Station in Iwakuni, Japan, a librarian will read the Declaration of Independence to personnel and their families. She will also issue disposable cameras to 25 people, including children, to take pictures of events and happenings on the base that day. They will burn a CD-ROM of the photos to create a memento of the day called, "A Day in the Life of Iwakuni."
"This is a time in our country when everybody seems to be wrestling with heartfelt opinions that are sometimes polar opposites," says Marsha Iverson, with the King County Library System in suburban Seattle. "People are really divided. People tend to cluster with others who have similar viewpoints. We need to hear both sides, and we need to hear each other's opinions in safe environments and with respectful listening."
Ms. Iverson believes the September Project could inspire a new era of civilized discourse in America.
"Right now, people feel the issues are too complex, and they feel they can't make a difference," says Michael Baldwin, the librarian at Benbrook. "I'm hoping the library can help people regain control of their democracy."
Silver plans to continue the September Project into future years.
Next year, Sept. 11 will be a Sunday, and he envisions taking the project into churches, synagogues, and mosques. In 2006, when Sept. 11 falls on a Monday, it would be only natural to move it into the K-12 school system.
"The idea of simple community conversations has gone missing in our society," adds Iverson. "If we're going to rediscover what's great about this nation, we're going to have to learn again to hear each other and understand each other and look harder for things that unite us rather than divide us."