French filmmaker and Holocaust scholar Claude Lanzmann has always been repulsed by efforts to explain Hitler and the Holocaust: "It is enough to formulate the question in simplistic terms Why have the Jews been killed? for the question to reveal right away its obscenity. There is an absolute obscenity in the very project of understanding."
We see a similar judgment being asserted repeatedly today in America. If anyone tries to understand why Osama bin Laden and his gang attacked us, the questioner is immediately condemned as sympathetic to the terrorists. These are both variants on the philosophical proposition: To understand all, is to forgive all. It is the serious version of the George Will joke that two liberals see a man lying in the gutter terribly beaten, and angrily say: "We have to find the man who did this he desperately needs help."
And because some of the commentators trying to explain why we were attacked are dedicated, left-wing America-haters, explanations are suspect as consciously chosen fig leaves for revisionism.
At a certain level, there is truth in the observation that to explain evil is the first step to excusing it; indeed, that all explanation is, de facto, exoneration. It is a dangerous step down a path to moral relativism, situational ethics and the enfeebling of the will to fight the evil. Particularly for civilized, educated people, the white-hot passion to fight is easily reduced to pale embers by theorizing, temporizing and finally rationalizing the "easy" way out of a fight.
Just as a horse is more surely kept on his path by blinders that exclude from his vision potentially distracting sights, so the argument goes, we should not be distracted from our duty by the contemplation of the enemy's psychological or material needs and motivations. This is the classic mystic's argument that blindness is insight.
But there is another Holocaust scholar, Yehuda Bauer, who argues that "The Holocaust can be precedent, or it can become a warning." So too, we can try to learn from this horror how to minimize bin Laden's appeal. Or we can be oblivious to the consequences of our conduct and just try to kill not only the current crop of terrorists faster than they can kill us, but the doubtlessly long line of enraged masses who may come into being in the future.
This is not an argument for failing to seek decisive victory now. We surely will have to fight a war of extermination against bin Laden's gang and such other sources of current danger as Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq.
But we should be simultaneously trying to understand what words and actions unnecessarily may rally even more people to the anti-American terrorist banner. For example, our foolish failure to reduce our reliance on Middle East oil has forced us to ally with "moderate" regimes who are increasingly on the wrong side of their people and the losing side of history. The quicker we can reduce that reliance, the greater freedom of action we will have.
The failure to consider the effect of our words and actions on potential enemies can have huge consequences. In World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt called for unconditional surrender from the Germans in order to rally American public opinion. He was vehemently opposed in that decision by Gen. Eisenhower; Chief of the Army, Gen. George C. Marshall; head of OSS, Bill Donovan; famed military strategist Basil Liddell Hart and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, among many others.
They all understood that that demand foreclosed the good chance that German Adm. Wilhelm Canaris the head of German intelligence who was actively helping the allies would be able to rally key generals to complete his coup against Hitler before the D-Day invasion. By maximizing the fighting spirit of the enemy, Roosevelt's call for unconditional surrender may have cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of allied soldiers and made possible the final Holocaust of 1944-1945.
Churchill, Eisenhower and Marshall certainly wanted complete victory also, but they understood that, depending on the president's words, the enemy could be either dispirited or enraged; they preferred the former.
It is grotesque that those both in and out of government today who seek to understand the motivations of the world in which we must live are condemned as fools or disloyal citizens. The answer to the question, "Why do they hate us?" is worth understanding, if not for the purpose of mitigating the hatred, at least for the purpose of preparing to deal with it.