WASHINGTON—A friend of mine was living in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001. After the twin towers fell, in the grip of the fear and anger and grief, he followed his impulses: he made his way on foot to Lower Manhattan, looking to help.

There, he was told that the best way for a writer to help was to stay out of the way. Thousands of other people who didn’t have emergency-response training but followed the same urge were told the same thing. When things fell apart, they wanted to do something helpful.

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