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The very first voice mail was from a man who had read last Thursday's column, thought it was pertinent and hoped people would "at least reflect upon it."

I was gratified by such reactions. But I also thought G.S. was going overboard when he closed with a warning: "I suspect you're going to get some rather nasty dissent."

After all, who could object to a column that said Americans should learn more?

Boy, did I find out.

A week later, the nasty e-mails have slowed to a trickle and I'm back to using my real name when I order takeout food. Still, the notion that we might be an insular, arrogant nation and that this contributes to our problems still rankles many.

A few common themes ran through most of the angry responses. So let's see if we can clear up some misunderstandings, considering only the G-rated comments.

Are you suggesting that U.S. citizens are responsible for terrorism . . . that because we haven't taken the time to understand Osama bin Laden's concerns or find Afghanistan on a map, it is OK to indiscriminately kill? - S.K.

No. I said the attacks were "sick." And like most Americans, I grieved while watching rescuers search the rubble, thinking of children left parentless and watching relatives holding up photos and hoping against hope.

What I did suggest is that, while no one condones such attacks, if we're going to prevent a recurrence, we at least ought to try to understand the potential perpetrators so that we know exactly what we're up against. That still makes sense.

"Frankly, while I agree that the people of this country . . . would be better if they had a familiarity with world affairs, the simple fact is that all most of us care about is that our world leaders . . . have a hands-on understanding. That's why we elect them to lead us as opposed to our having to do these things ourselves." - L.G.S.

An election is only half the democratic process. The other half is being informed enough to monitor policies implemented in our names so that those we elect aren't needlessly antagonizing the world, subverting democratic principles and keeping embarrassing operations covert while the rest of us watch "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire."

"I know that you are an avowed communist, and I find what you wrote in spite of that to be utterly disgusting. To side with those monsters is incredible!" - P.S.

Let's see: Osama bin Laden fought against the Soviets, who definitely were avowed communists. So that would make him anti-communist. Now, if I'm allegedly siding with him, and the enemy of my enemy is my . . .

Never mind. On to the basic point: To try to understand the reasons behind something is hardly the same as justifying it.

"As far as Osama bin Laden's motives . . . there is nothing we can do that would please bin Laden and thus stop the terrorist attacks. If you don't comprehend this, you should possibly move to food or movie reviews." - K.B.

Understanding what's going on in a poor land where life expectancy is three decades less than here is not about "pleasing" bin Laden. It is about understanding the conditions that can breed support for someone like him.

In every poor society, the vast majority of people can go either way. With understanding, empathy and an evenhanded foreign policy, we can reach out and cultivate them as allies, removing the human infrastructure that terrorists need to survive.

Conversely, we can lecture them, mock their cultures and use our superior resources to bully instead of convince. In the process, we'll drive them into the folds of a bin Laden. "Rod, you're no Leonard Pitts." - E.L.

Curiously, no one ever tells me I'm no George Will, Cal Thomas or David Broder. Of course, I agree with Pitts' emotional condemnation of the attacks. Who wouldn't? But African-Americans are allowed to have more than one reaction to the same phenomenon.

"Your ""opinion' column is always self-serving and myopic in regards to race." - P.D.C.

The only reference to race last week was a brief mention of how America pulled out of the conference on racism and other world confabs. It seems to me that some people are becoming much too race-conscious.

"We are sick of your negativity! This takes the cake. We will be canceling our subscription immediately!" - Anonymous caller.

See above, the part about trying to understand other points of view.


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