I think I can clear up a mystery for law enforcement investigators and forensic psychologists trying to understand Sept. 11's mass murderers.
The previous mental and social profile of the suicide bomber was of a young, uneducated, poor, religious zealot given little time to reflect after being assigned a fatal mission, and with no prior contact with those he is sent to kill. But reports paint a picture of the hijacking terrorists as almost the opposite: educated, middle-class, professional men, some with families, dispassionate, and most disturbingly of all, living a long time in our suburbs and cities, plotting our doom.
How could this be? For me the answer was foreshadowed a decade ago, when I took a class from an elderly visiting professor from Communist China. He noted, with some perplexity, "It is strange. You Americans are more anti-American than we are."
So I think the demons of Sept. 11 were trained to hate Americans, perhaps from birth, but as they went to school in America and Europe, and as they read our literature and newspapers and absorbed our news and entertainment media, the anti-American (and anti-Western) messages were intensified rather than deflected.
For example, if they attended one of our universities or sent their kids to elementary or secondary institutions, they encountered curricula steeped in the crimes of racism and colonialism of the United States and Western Civilization against minorities at home and abroad.
Our popular culture, too, wallows in self-hatred. According to accepted stereotype, business people -- like those capitalists in the World Trade Center -- are evil scoundrels. The police -- like the hundreds of New York men and women in blue who died trying to save lives -- are occasionally heroic but often violent, racist and corrupt.
Government agencies and bureaucrats are conspiratorial villains, killing innocents, stealing the lands of natives. Our fictional politicians, as well, are venal, dishonest and grasping, all on the take. And when has the military, as opposed to individual American soldiers, been portrayed in any decent light since the Korean War?
But even if the list of grievances and aggrieved is long and legitimate, historically, we have been the most merciful victors in history. The people of Italy, Japan and Germany are better off today for losing a war to our soldiers; what other nation can cite such benevolence? No country has given more food and money to help other lands; to paraphrase Shakespeare, "When the poor hath cried, America hath wept."
And, as historian Victor Davis Hanson recently noted, "No country has done more in the last 10 years to save the Muslims of Eastern Europe" from extermination by their angry neighbors than has the United States.
In addition, despite all the mistakes of America, tens of millions of people have struggled and died to come to our shores. No other country -- whether hereditary kingdom, religious priestocracy or socialist paradise -- has attracted this continuing tide of worn shoes and bright hopes. The poor people of the world have voted in our favor by their migrations -- all toward us, not away. If we are so evil, why do they want their children to become us?
What the huddled masses understand is that no system of government has allowed more ordinary people a greater share of political power than democracy, no economic system has provided comfortable lives to as many people as capitalism, no culture has produced such a variety of great works, and, most important, no society has been as open to self-criticism as that of the United States. The immigrants, whether Vietnamese, Nicaraguans or Upper Voltans, know that individual freedom, worth and dignity are purely Western (and supremely American) concepts.
And even in our outrage we confirm the national decency. In my town of Baton Rouge, La., a local Palestinian-born sandwich shop owner was accused (apparently falsely) of celebrating upon hearing of the tragedies. Hate letters and e-mail and not a few screeching pickup trucks hounded his business. But after the story broke on the news, hundreds of local people came to the shop to buy lunch and, as one man put it, "show everyone that good people know good people." The owner shed tears of gratitude.
I couldn't help thinking that only in America would the story turn out this way. Shift the nation and ethnicity, retell the tale with a Chinese shop owner in Jakarta, a Sikh in Kampala, a Christian in Cairo or a Jew in Damascus, and the outcome would have been riot, flames and death.
Such is the reality that gets lost in the fog of clever academic deconstruction, hip Hollywood cynicism, and the carping of scheming Third World elites. The tears of the Arab sandwich maker renewed the invocation for me: America is great and good.
Perhaps we don't repeat that truth enough; those who hate us should hear it more often, and so should we.
DAVID D. PERLMUTTER is an associate professor and senior fellow at the Louisiana State University's Reilly Center for Media & Public Affairs. He is the author of "Visions of War" (St. Martin's, 1999).