How - Americans, Europeans, and millions of others ask - could they hate us so much? How could "quiet, well-behaved, law-abiding" young men, as their neighbors described them, perpetrate the unspeakable suicide attacks that devastated our buildings, our lives, and our spirits on Sept. 11?
Every one of us ought to search his or her memory and retrieve what we have learned about the wider world, and examine all this for the answers.
I was too young to fight in World War II. I found myself as a young Army soldier amid the ruins of postwar Germany and Austria in 1946-47. The cold war with Stalin's despotic Soviet empire was beginning then, with Communist takeovers east of Vienna. But the Western world, Western Europe in particular, was buoyed by hope in America. People everywhere believed in the brave words of President Roosevelt and his "four freedoms," and in those of his successor, President Truman, who spoke of the new United Nations as guardian of those freedoms, and of democracy.
Elder statesman George Marshall revived Europeans' faith in America with the generous, sweeping Marshall Plan, which was ultimately successful in reconstructing Europe's economies and societies.
My next personal experience came from living mostly in North Africa from 1953 to 1964, covering the anticolonial struggles for independence from France, Spain, Italy, and Britain. Already, as terrorist bombs killed friends and acquaintances in places like Casablanca and Algiers, it was clear that the bright wartime promises of American-backed emancipation, heard from President Roosevelt and others, were already dimming or being extinguished.
In 9 cases out of 10, the US either sided with the colonial powers or sat on a neutral fence. Politics in the mother country (General de Gaulle's accession to power in France, for example, or the collapse of General Franco's dictatorship in Spain), third-world or Communist-world help - not American rhetoric - brought liberation. This was an immense source of disillusion for Arab and African peoples.
The understandable American zeal to support in 1948 the new Jewish state of Israel, a beacon of hope to survivors of the Nazi Holocaust, led to a billion-dollar misunderstanding. In 1944, President Roosevelt, who had denied American asylum to thousands of Jewish Holocaust survivors, was mainly concerned with winning World War II - and with keeping Arab oil out of Nazi hands. He met Saudi Arabian King Abdel Aziz and assured him that the US would permit no new changes in British-ruled Palestine without consulting the Arabs first, a promise soon forgotten with President Truman's total commitment to Israel.
From 1948 onward, through the Arab-Israel wars until the present, world Muslim perception has been that the US betrayed Roosevelt's wartime idealistic promises of freedom and self-determination. The same Muslim and Arab public around the world considers that when United Nations resolutions favor Israel, the US always supports them; but in the contrary case, it never does.
In the wars of Southeast Asia of the 1950s, '60s, and '70s, in South Africa's struggle for freedom from apartheid, as in Latin America's battles against dictatorship, a huge number of people in the non-American world have resented what they saw as the usually well-meaning but often clumsy and overbearing exercise of great American power.
The origin of the unspeakable atrocities of Sept. 11 lies in South Asia. To drive a collapsing Soviet empire and military machine out of neutral Muslim Afghanistan, successive US administrations, beginning with that of President Carter in 1980, allied themselves with a coalition of the most vehement anticommunist Muslims they could find. These were radical Muslims from Arab and Muslim states, and from Muslim communities everywhere, including New York and Los Angeles.
The CIA, with Pakistan's military chiefs, Saudi Arabia, Britain, Egypt, and other allies, recruited, trained, and generously paid this Muslim mercenary army to help the Afghans rid themselves of Soviet occupation.
Osama bin Laden, his wealth, and his loyal supporters were a large part of this huge effort, which was managed on the terrain by a Pakistani military with its own agenda.
When in 1989, the defeated Soviets quit Afghanistan which was wasted by 10 years of war, the US turned its back. Except for a brief flirtation with the medieval Taliban movement created by the Pakistan military, the US left the Afghans to their misery and moved out.
None of these past policy errors or failures could, of course, begin to excuse the dreadful and evil attacks on America of Sept. 11.
But unless we are willing to face the flaws of our own past policy errors, and try to comprehend how they have inflamed growing hatred, we will be unable to remove that hatred. Without more insight and better future policy decisions, not improvised from week to week, we may be doomed to more terrible repetitions of Sept. 11.
John K. Cooley, a former Monitor correspondent, reports for ABC News. He is the author of 'Unholy Wars: Afghanistan, America, and International Terrorism' (Pluto, 1999).