President Bush has made one thing clear: The war on terror is us vs. them. He's taken every opportunity to brand the terrorists and the Taliban as "the evil ones" -- the unmistakable contrast in this theological tableau being that we Americans are the "good ones."
So what are we to make of John Walker, the 20-year-old all-American kid who turned Taliban warrior -- and even condoned the Sept. 11 attack on his homeland?
I was always troubled by the president's repeated references to "the evil ones" -- from his first press conference after the attack, when he mentioned "the evil one" and "evildoers" five times, to his recent vow that "across the world and across the years, we will fight the evil ones, and we will win." I objected not because the terrorists aren't evil but because, as much as we would love it to be true, such a simple demarcation of good and evil flies in the face of history, religion and human nature.
The lure of this kind of reductionist thinking is not a new one. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, himself a victim of some of the most horrific evil of the 20th century, warned against it in "The Gulag Archipelago." He writes: "If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being."
Since Walker's capture, his friends and family have described him as "a sweet, kind, intelligent kid" with "a wonderful sense of humor," a devout Muslim who planned to go to medical school, then minister to the poor of Pakistan. So how did this "sweet kid" end up fighting arm in arm with the Taliban in the bloody riot at the Kala Jangi fortress in which a CIA agent was savagely beaten to death?
The answer is as simple as it is complex. "Now is the time to draw the line in the sand against the evil ones," said the president. The problem is that the line in the sand is inside each human being. Walker crossed that line when he made the choice to embrace evil. Might the shocking revelation of "one of us" among "one of them" stop the president from being so smug as to think that carrying an American passport somehow exempts us from crossing that line?
First indications are not promising. When asked about Walker, W, the Slayer of Evil, went positively mushy, calling the AK-47-toting Talib "this poor fellow" who had "obviously been misled." Apparently "evil" automatically morphs into "misled" when pronounced with an American accent.
Since the president seems convinced that evil is an Al Jazeera exclusive, I suggest he take a look at the mounting evidence that the terrorists responsible for the anthrax attacks are homegrown. New tests show that the powder used in the deadly mailings was of a strength that has only been produced by the U.S. military. The FBI is focusing on the likelihood that someone connected to America's now defunct biowarfare program is behind the attacks.
"I don't think they're manufacturing this in caves," said Dr. Ken Alibek, a scientist who used to work in the Soviet Union's germ weapons program. "It's coming from another source." One with a U.S. return address.
Nevertheless, the president continues to divide humanity into the moral equivalent of shirts and skins. "Our responsibility to history," he said, "is already clear: to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil." And this is a man who balked at nation building? Not only is this a ludicrous principle on which to base a foreign policy but also an equally ludicrous interpretation of the world's major religions. Mr. Bush should pull out his trusty Bible and brush up on what it says about original sin.
American ingenuity has come up with a vaccine against anthrax. But it has not come up with a way to inoculate us against evil. To pretend otherwise is to hold a worldview that cannot incorporate developments such as an American Talib, American bioterrorists or whatever other red, white and blue bombshells the future may hold.