Leonard Pitts Jr

November 17, 2001: When hate's truly deep, talk's cheap

Laura Beth Kulbacki knows how to end the threat of terrorism.

These madmen are crazed enough to slaughter people they don't even know? ``Why don't we just tell them our names?'' she asks.

Laura Beth is four. She was quoted in September in The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette as part of a story on children's responses to the events of Sept. 11. Her words caught the attention of first lady Laura Bush, who mentioned them in a 60 Minutes interview a few days later. She must have shared Laura Beth's thoughts with her husband, because he made reference to them in last week's televised address to the nation.

There is, of course, an innocence to the words that is seductive. A clarity in them that speaks to idealistic dreams once dreamt by many of us who are much older than four. In the largest sense, she is saying this: If we could only communicate with the people who oppose us, if we could only see their humanity and allow them to see ours, then surely we would find a way to resolve our differences short of war.

Would they still want to kill us if they knew who we were?

The answer is that they already did. The hijackers, after all, lived among us for a long time.

It's fine for a preschooler to believe that people who hate us would not hate us if they only knew us. It would be a mistake for the rest of us to believe that. A well-intentioned mistake, perhaps, but a mistake, nevertheless.

I recall my interview with historian Steve Lubar, curator of the History of Technology section of the Smithsonian Institution's Museum of American History. He explained that our faith in communication as a means of stymieing war is as persistent as it is misplaced. Every advance in communications technology has been attended by the expectation that it would help usher in an era of peaceful coexistence.

People, he said, invariably ask, `` `How can we disagree with each other if we all can talk to each other?' It goes back to before the Civil War. [Some people wondered,] `How can there be a Civil War if the North and the South have telegraph lines?' ''

Telegraph lines, radio, telephones, television, the Internet. . .each was supposed to render war obsolete. None of them did.

Let me tread lightly here. I don't mean to suggest that communication between antagonists serves no purpose. It's harder to kill someone you know, someone with whom you've made a connection. It becomes likelier that you will experience an outbreak of peace. So communication is infinitely better than its alternative.

But for all that, communication is not a panacea. It's entirely possible for people to communicate at length and resolve nothing. Possible for them to communicate for years and create only mutual contempt. Just ask the Israelis and the Palestinians. Communication is not necessarily understanding, much less resolution.

Human history strongly suggests that people find it remarkably easy not to hear one another when deafness suits their purposes. Suggests that when hatred burrows deeply enough, becomes intrinsic enough to a people's sense of outraged grievance, it's hard to simply talk it away. Enmity strong enough to foment the horror we saw two months ago is beyond the power of rationalization or debate. People for whom the willful mass slaughter of innocent noncombatants is an acceptable recourse for grievance have given up on talking, to say nothing of listening.

I find that a painful, but unavoidable, conclusion. And I wonder: How we can ever explain something like that to this little girl - to all our little girls and their brothers - when it is difficult enough accepting it ourselves?

I am of the generation that grew up riding the Love Train and wanting to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony. So Laura Beth's question resonates.

``Why don't we just tell them our names?'' she asks. For a moment, it takes you aback. Makes you wish it could indeed be that easy.

But it won't be. It almost never is.