Boston — It's more than six weeks since Sept. 11 and I'm still trying to figure out why my skin crawls when I hear the word "evil" sprinkled into the rhetoric of war. Why is it that I recoil when enemies are labeled evildoers?
After all, I believe in evil. I don't think that every criminal or terrorist is just an unevolved adult in need of a hug. I don't agree that there are no truly evil people anymore than I believe that there are no truly bad dogs. I have met a few pit bulls in my time.
More to the point, if there was ever a "pure play" in evildoers, the pilots who flew planes full of innocents into buildings full of unaware workers fill the bill.
Why then do I also recoil when I hear someone talking about terrorism as the product of our foreign policy? Why do I get jumpy when someone describes the attacks as "blowback" or points to al Qaida as chickens coming home to roost?
After all, I have no doubt that we've made some terrible blunders. We've supported repressive regimes, favored oil over democracy, winked at Middle Eastern "friends" whose schools taught jihad against America.
More to the point, if there was ever a candidate for blowback, it was our policy that supported Afghan "freedom fighters" against Soviets, and then ditched the people like a one-night stand.
The truth is that I find myself homeless, a foreigner in the neighborhood of people who talk about evildoers and in the neighborhood of people who talk about blowback.
On the one hand, it seems to me that the language of evil describes a conflict that is permanent and a condition that is immutable. The word doesn't allow for the shifting sands that end up with the photograph of George Bush and Vladimir Putin and Jiang Zemin president of the United States and heirs to the Evil Empires now allies in Chinese silk jackets. It doesn't allow for Iran striking deals with the Great American Satan.
The language of evil evokes, as Princeton's Elaine Pagels suggests, the apocalyptic view of God and Satan contending for the world. "That's not just a cosmological picture, not just a religious picture," she says, "it describes a social world divided between God's people and Satan's people."
In such a view, surely "God's people" are justified in doing anything to "Satan's people." And while Osama bin Laden may be willing to believe that, I am not.
On the other hand, it seems to me that the language of blowback, pinning the blame on the donkey of American foreign policy, implies that we made this happen. If somehow we had only walked a mile in their shoes, aided Afghanistan, gotten to "yes" with fundamentalists, bin Laden would have been our best buddy.
This view comfortably ignores the fervor of religion. It forgets that the pilots flying those planes were apparently not dispossessed young men but middle-class fanatics. It discounts the fact that many Muslims who chant hatred of America on the streets aren't trying to just establish a Palestinian state, but eliminate an Israeli state. And what kind of American foreign policy would please the fundamentalist view of women's rights?
Standing like many Americans, at the heart of this debate, while a cacophony of voices swirl around and inside me, I long for a simple argument, a simple solution. But I resist and resent the simplified arguments and the simplistic solutions.
We are right now in the middle of a crash course on terrorism, watching foreign policy being improvised on a dangerous stage. I think many Americans feel how deeply, frustratingly complex this new world is.
We understand that the people who were attacked by planes and possibly anthrax were innocents, but our government's policies in the Middle East were not always innocent. We understand that we have no choice but to win. And no choice but to win populations over.
At this moment, Americans are open, confused, paying attention. Sooner or later, we will each create a narrative, a story line to explain what we now call loosely "the events of Sept. 11." I am less afraid of the current confusion than the coming certainties of evil or blowback.
We need to learn how to contain an abiding and unresolved internal dialogue in our heads not unlike the double message raining down in Afghanistan of bombs and, yes, food packages, for all the absurdity of the peanut butter. This is an argument that simultaneously confronts enemies while it puts forth our own moral values.
These arguments today twist and turn like a double helix, at once divided and connected, separate and in concert. But the double helix of today's hard conversations will become the DNA of America's engagement in the world for the rest of our lives.