Ask many Americans why they have displayed Old Glory since Sept. 11, and eventually they get around to saying, "We didn't deserve to be attacked."
Ask why they like to see "God Bless America" on signs, and they say something like, "Because we're innocent."
Such sentiments reflect a deep desire to hold fast to the ideal that the United States is too pure to be a target of evil forces. Americans ask simply, "Why do they hate us?" and hope the answers don't imply any guilt or error by the US in its global affairs.
But a feeling has spread that America's innocence has fallen like the twin towers in a nation founded on the principle of presumed innocence.
It's driven in part by the media, academics, and pundits who conduct blame-the-victim finger-pointing, citing what the US could have done or should be doing to keep foreign radicals from so hating the US that they must - just must - resort to killing thousands of civilians. (See opinion piece, next page.)
Has the US sided with Israel too much? Should it not have troops in Saudi Arabia to defend it against Iraq? Are the sanctions against Iraq really killing Iraqi children? Is American culture harming Islam? Have Arabs been betrayed by American indifference and hypocrisy? Is the US too dependent on Middle East oil?
And so on. The list is endless.
The worry over lost innocence is so strong that children are even being asked not to pick Halloween costumes that are not too scary. And students are being told to read up on atrocities committed by Americans in the past, from Indian slaughter to slavery to Waco.
In hindsight, the US has committed wrongs. But it rarely acts collectively, knowing at the time that it's doing wrong. It generally learns from past mistakes, but moves ahead with a less-naive innocence and renewed idealism.
Innocence, like truth, has the power to see evil acts, such as terrorism, as nothing more than the illusion of "idolizing something or somebody, or hating them," as the founder of this newspaper, Mary Baker Eddy, once wrote.
Many top Islamic clerics in the Middle East have condemned the Sept. 11 attacks because they broke a basic religious precept: that even in war, mankind must hang on to the idea of innocence among noncombatants. In the mind of the terrorist, if everyone is presumed guilty, then everyone is game for massacre.
A civil society rests on a pillar of innocence, and those who throw innocence to the wind in a broad sweep of collective guilt will find themselves living outside society - in a place like the caves of Afghanistan.