Eventually I became a writer, which is not a way to vanquish existential dread but a way to live with it and even to earn a modest living from it. Perhaps some of you will follow that path; but whatever you decide to “do with that,” remember: whether you know it yet or not, you have doomed yourselves by learning how to read, learning how to question, learning how to doubt. And this is a most difficult time – the most difficult I remember – to have those skills. Once you have them, however, they are not easy to discard. Finding yourself forced to see the gulf between what you are told about the world, whether it’s your government doing the telling, or your boss, or even your family or friends, and what you yourself can’t help but understand about that world – this is not always a welcome kind of vision to have. It can be burdensome and awkward and it won’t always make you happy.
I think I became a writer in part because I found that yawning difference between what I was told and what I could see to be inescapable. I started by writing about wars and massacres and violence. The State Department, as I learned from a foreign service officer in Haiti, has a technical term for the countries I mostly write about: the TFC beat. TFC – in official State Department parlance – stands for “Totally Fucked-up Countries.” After two decades of this, of Salvador and Haiti and Bosnia and Iraq, my mother – who already had to cope with the anxiety of a son acquiring a very expensive education in “Modern Literature and Aesthetics” – still asks periodically: Can’t you go someplace nice for a change?
When I was sitting where you are sitting now the issue was Central America and in particular the war in El Salvador. America, in the backwash of defeat in Vietnam, was trying to protect its allies to the south – to protect regimes under assault by leftist insurgencies – and it was doing so by supporting a government in El Salvador that was fighting the war by massacring its own people. I wrote about one of those events in my first book, The Massacre at El Mozote, which told of the murder of a thousand or so civilians by a new, elite battalion of the Salvadoran army – a battalion that the Americans had trained. A thousand innocent civilians dead in a few hours, by machete and by M-16.
Looking back at that story now – and at many of the other stories I have covered over the years, from Central America to Iraq – I see now that in part I was trying to find a kind of moral clarity: a place, if you will, where that gulf that I spoke about, between what we see and what is said, didn’t exist. Where better to find that place than in the world where massacres and killings and torture happen, in the place, that is, where we find evil. What could be clearer than that kind of evil?
But I discovered it was not clear at all. Chat with a Salvadoran general about the massacre of a thousand people that he ordered and he will tell you that it was military necessity, that those people had put themselves in harm’s way by supporting the guerrillas, and that “such things happen in war.” Speak to the young conscript who wielded the machete and he will tell you that he hated what he had to do, that he has nightmares about it still, but that he was following orders and that if he had refused he would have been killed. Talk to the State Department official who helped deny that the massacre took place and he will tell you that there was no definitive proof and, in any case, that he did it to protect and promote the vital interests of the United States. None of them is lying. I found that if you search for evil, once you leave the corpses behind you will have great difficulty finding the needed grimacing face.
What is interesting about both of those is that the heart of the scandal, the wrongdoing, is right out in front of us. Virtually nothing of great importance remains to be revealed. Ever since Watergate we’ve had a fairly established narrative of scandal. First you have revelation: the press, usually with the help of various leakers within the government, reveals the wrongdoing. Then you have investigation, when the government – the courts, or Congress, or, as with Watergate, both – constructs a painstaking narrative of what exactly happened: an official story, one that society – that the community – can agree on. Then you have expiation, when the judges hand down sentences, the evildoers are punished, and the society returns to a state of grace.
What distinguishes our time – the time of September 11 – is the end of this narrative of scandal. With the scandals over weapons of mass destruction and Abu Ghraib, we are stuck at step one. We have had the revelation; we know about the wrongdoing. Just recently, in the Downing Street memo, we had an account of a high-level discussion in Britain, nearly eight months before the Iraq war, in which the head of British intelligence flatly tells the prime minister the intelligence officer has just returned from Washington – that not only has the President of the United States decided that “military action was…inevitable” but that – in the words of the British intelligence chief – “the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.” This memo has been public for weeks. 
So we have had the revelations; we know what happened. What we don’t have is any clear admission of – or adjudication of – guilt, such as a serious congressional or judicial investigation would give us, or any punishment. Those high officials responsible are still in office. Indeed, not only have they received no punishment; many have been promoted. And we – you and I, members all of the reality-based community – we are left to see, to be forced to see. And this, for all of us, is a corrupting, a maddening, but also an inescapable burden.
Let me give you a last example. The example is in the form of a little play: a reality-based playlet that comes to us from the current center of American comedy. I mean the Pentagon press briefing room, where the real true-life comedies are performed. The time is a number of weeks ago. The dramatis personae are Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld; Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs (and soon to be promoted) General Peter Pace of the Marine Corps; and of course, playing the Fool, a lowly and hapless reporter.
No real comment, just interesting.