Lessons going unlearned can be funny or sobering. Guess which it is today?

We stop today to reflect upon the horror and pain of a year ago and to continue pondering the motivations of evil Islamic fanatics who would kill innocents as a means of attacking the larger ideal of America. Like Pearl Harbor, the assassination of President Kennedy, and the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, the attack of 9/11 is etched into world history. Also like those events, 9/11 shocked not only at the swiftness of death but in how suddenly our perceptions were overthrown. A large part of what lingers now, I think, is an unspoken unease at the knowledge that the world is a darker place than we had heretofore imagined and that our Day-Glo capitalism isn’t seen as being very shiny outside of the United States.

The lessons to be learned here are, I fear, going ungrasped by most Americans. Certainly there appears to be in the Oval Office no awareness of the world’s contempt and frustration for America’s go-it-alone attitude. The Bush Administration’s instinctive isolationist response in foreign affairs (for the war in Afganistan was primarily a unilateral action) is a short-term solution at best. In the midrange it appears to equate to a war with Iraq, which from a war on terror perspective is bizarre and disturbing. In the long-term, isolationist behavior on the international stage is the worst of all possible strategies, for we have many things to learn from the other peoples of the world. Concerning the Arab states the most pressing presently is: Why do you hate us so much? Whether it is our support of Israel, our efforts at globalization, a religious jihad, or some other reason, I don’t know. I do know that we will come to the end of the Bush presidency without an answer to that most important question.

A year after the attack on America, it is what we’ve not learned that drives much of my own sadness. Bush sees everything in almost canine terms; somebody hit us with a stick so we’ll bite him. The reality of human existence is more complex and nuanced. Great truths are typically paradoxes, and I’m convinced this thinking is beyond Mr. Bush’s capabilities. A relevent example: You don’t win wars with the military. What you win are opportunities to achieve your ends (and usually there are better ways to obtain these than military might). The history books will tell you that World War I was allied victory. But the French- and English-dictated terms of the Treaty of Versaille led almost inevitably to Hitler’s rise and World War II. That’s not much of a victory. Why didn’t World War II lead to World War III? Because the United States, after more or less razing both countries, rebuilt Japan and Germany (and much of Western Europe). We installed democratic governments and provided massive economic assistance.

In that vein, did we really win the Gulf War, or did we kill thousands of innocents, leave a madman in power, and convince the populous of virtually every Arab nation to hate us? And if so, is that victory? If the political leadership of this country had any sense whatsoever, we’d start a large-scale nation-building process in Afganistan, and the first thing we’d do is pay local Muslims to build a giant mosque. Then we’d start building up the country’s infrastructure and, for the love of God, confiscating the automatic machine guns that everybody and their brother seems to tote around. As it stands, we’ve got US troops loitering about, looking for more targets to shoot at, and becoming targets themselves. This is an incredibly poor way to achieve anything that equates to success, but attacking Iraq unilaterally will be worse.

Unless we carpet bomb Baghdad and kill thousands of civilians, any invasion force will be stuck with street-to-street fighting. Such combat will require about a 6:1 ratio of attackers to defenders in order to be successful and carries with it a casualty rate significantly higher than most other types of warfare. But that’s just the military problem (of which the Bush Administration seems surprisingly unconcerned, though the Pentagon’s recent urban environment war games and simulation should give pause to even the most ardent hawk). The larger difficulty will come after the war, when like Afganistan, we’ve leveled the country and left. The hatred of America will burn even hotter, and some twisted Iraqi soul—probably educated at a US school—will find a way to acquire a nuclear device and float it into New York harbor.

Speculation rises on days like these about the role of God in human affairs, but for my part I accepted as adequate the concept of free will a long time ago. I believe God gives us the power to choose good or evil in everything we do, and flawed as we are, through action and inaction, consciously and unconsciously, we frequently choose evil. A few among us choose to perpetuate evil of a magnitude that we consider their actions to be crimes against humanity. The September 11th hijackers made such a choice and were such men. To my way of thinking, God had nothing to do with their actions other than to lay open to them the same power He gives us all.

“Despite everything, I believe that people are really good at heart,” wrote Anne Frank, the now-famous Jewish victim of the Nazi Holocaust. I long for her sentiment on human nature to be true, but alas it is not. Some people—through upbringing, culture, religion, genetics, or other factors we have yet to ascertain—are not “good at heart.” The heartbreaking truth of 9/11 is that sometimes these evil people prevail.

A year later, a further heartbreaking truth has emerged: Good people are easily driven to righteously evil responses when they are wronged. By such a mentality we will all be undone.