Why do Americans need to believe their enemies are irrational, or evil incarnate, in order to act against them?
Maybe it's because I have a grandmother from Sicily, which is as much a North African island as it is a European one, that I'm immune to this paralysis. Making sense of a vendetta doesn't require a "good" side and a "bad" side -- just your side and the other side.
Members of feuding Sicilian clans couldn't delude themselves into thinking that their counterparts had no reason to hate them. Indulging such a luxury will get you killed. Of course your enemies have reason to hate you, which is why they must be crushed without mercy.
This is tribal thinking, but it is not narrow-minded. In fact, it's more enlightened than the attitudes of the urbane and the up-to-date.
This pre-industrial (indeed, pre-Christian) point of view respects the rationality of one's enemies. Foes are not considered to have diminished human capacities. They are not "crazy," dissocial creatures but people who are loyal to groups whose interests conflict with yours.
In this context, ethnocentricity is a vice of the stronger side. In 1998 former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, then army chief of staff, was subjected to gross indignities after making the unremarkable observation that if he had been born a Palestinian he probably would have joined a terrorist organization.
Barak was roundly criticized in the Knesset and reduced to defending himself by recounting his many dangerous commando missions. After three days Silvan Shalom, deputy defense minister in the Likud government, quoted a poll saying that 90 percent of the Israeli public believed Barak had made a mistake and thought the general's words had shown a serious defect in a candidate for prime minister.
Among Palestinians, the observation that one might have become an Israeli commando had one been born into a Zionist family would have been dismissed as the irrelevant musing of someone with too much time on his hands.
But imagine the hysteria that would plague any American who admitted that he might have been one of the Sept. 11 hijackers had the circumstances of his birth been different.
"The American elite yearns for singularity," wrote Robert D. Kaplan in the June 2000 issue of the Atlantic. "If atrocities are rare, then they are preventable."
A corollary to Kaplan's insight explains the American urge to see enemies as abnormal. The attacks of "madmen" are singular and therefore less terrifying.
But the suicide bombers were not insane, and attacks on America -- which remains a big, fat target -- are limited only by our enemies' imagination.
Kaplan wrote that U.S. elites are less like such Renaissance pragmatists as Niccolo Machiavelli and Thomas Hobbes, whose tough-minded political philosophies underpin the modern nation state, than like medieval churchmen, sanctimoniously dividing the world into good and evil.
"Americans think their idealism is a matter of character, but it's really dumb geographic luck," he said in a telephone interview.
Kaplan, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, said Americans have never had to deal with the world pragmatically because two great oceans have protected them. When their idealistic solutions didn't work out, they could retreat, he said.
The U.S. political system is based on Enlightenment values, which Americans think of as moral teachings, Kaplan said. "They don't realize that the Enlightenment came after a long period of economic growth and the development of bureaucracies that other nations have not experienced."
Kaplan said that, unfortunately, the only remedy for such naiveté is tragedy.
Perhaps the tragedy of Sept. 11 will teach Americans that we must fight our enemies -- some of whom are dedicated and brave -- with the realism of a Cheyenne or Pawnee.