Written May 16 2001; later revised to add the name of the North Vietnamese village where one of the atrocities occurred. A Russian translation is available.)

On April 19th, 1995, a fertilizer bomb blew up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. By the time the dust settled, 168 people — 19 of them children — were dead.

Within weeks, a decorated veteran of the Gulf War named Timothy McVeigh had been arrested. After being convicted of the act, he defiantly justified it as retaliation for the U.S. government's actions at Waco and Ruby Ridge. In a famously chilling quote, he described the deaths of all those women and children as "collateral damage".

This week, five years after the event and a mere week before McVeigh was scheduled to die by lethal injection (the first person to be executed in a Federal prison since 1963), we learned that a major FBI bungle in evidence handling may save his life. He might even go free on a mistrial.

This news has triggered a media frenzy. This morning, I looked at a Newsweek cover on which McVeigh's face had been solarized into a demonic, glowing mask. The cover was no more portentious than its content — an earnest, almost plaintive inquiry into the nature of evil. The article itself is actually rather interesting — it suggests that there may be consistent neurological deficits of the prefontal lobes, anterior cingulate gyrus and left temporal region behind murderously sociopathic behavior.

Similar exercises are being repeated all across the national media. And yet, as I read them, I sense a peculiar, determined evasiveness about them. There's a rush going on to demonize McVeigh as a nearly unique vessel of radical evil, a man whose acts were (like Stalin's or Hitler's) so far beyond the pale of normal human behavior that the only possible explanation is a deep pathology of the brain or of less tangible elements of the self.

This seems to me like a way to avoid facing the really hard questions. Questions which begin with this one: where and when and how did Timothy McVeigh learn to think of taking the lives of innocent women and children as acceptable "collateral damage"?

Of course we know the answer to that one. McVeigh learned that term in the U.S. military. He learned it while faithfully serving the U.S. government's military and political objectives. In pursuit of those objectives hundreds (possibly thousands) of Iraqis women and children died in the bombings of Baghdad and elsewhere. They were "collateral damage".

In writing about the Nuremberg trials after World War II, Hannah Arendt coined the phrase "the banality of evil". She was encapsulating the utter ordinariness of the men who carried out Hitler's orders for the Final Solution, the attempted extinction of the Jews in Europe. It seems that we have not yet learned the lesson Nuremberg was teaching.

The Holocaust, and the Oklahoma City bombing, should frighten us not because the killers were beyond the pale, but precisely because they were not — their `radical evil' was in fact difficult to distinguish from similar behaviors that have been (and are still) considered necessary to society and honored rather than despised.

I think Senator Bob Kerrey understands this very well. Recently he admitted that in 1969 the Navy SEAL team on which he served shot up the North Vietnamese hamlet of Thanh Pong while on an assassination mission against a Viet Cong leader. Dozens of defenseless women and children died. Collateral damage.

If history had turned out differently, would Kerrey have belonged in the dock of a war-crimes trial? Kerrey himself seems to be unsure. He says he is not fit to be President. He is probably right. But he has supporters eager to exonerate him from all across the political spectrum.

Timothy McVeigh was no Ted Bundy, no simple psychopath dicing up victims at random. He timed the bombing for the anniversary of the Waco massacre, in which U.S. Government agents used tanks, teargas, and munitions known to have incendiary side-effects against civilians on U.S. soil. During the attack, 27 children were gassed to death in a bunker. Collateral damage.

If Timothy McVeigh says he was motivated by a sense of moral outrage and duty to his country, why is it that we rush to dismiss him as a psychopathic embodiment of evil while Bob Kerrey and the FBI agents at Waco are treated as moral actors?

Note that in asking this question I am not arguing that the Oklahoma City bombing was ‘right’ or that Kerrey's actions or those of the agents at Waco were ‘wrong’. I am trying to point out that we don't have any grounds to declare McVeigh insane or evil that he doesn't share with others of whose actions we approve.

The theory that Kerrey and the Waco agents were within the pale because they were following the orders of a legitimately constituted government won't wash. The Nuremberg trials, if they settled anything at all, settled that "I was just following orders" is not an excuse for slaughtering the defenseless.

More generally, that McVeigh reported acting from individual radical political conviction doesn't solve the problem either. History has not infrequently judged violent revolutionaries to have been in the right. Our own country was founded by violent revolutionaries who took up the gun only after they felt (as McVeigh says he did) that peaceful avenues of redress had been exhausted.

History may yet judge the U.S. government's actions at Waco and Ruby Ridge and in Vietnam more harshly than McVeigh's; we don't know that yet, and cannot now know it. In any case, declaring McVeigh a psychopath either because of or in spite of the fact that he justified his killings with anti-government rhetoric seems to me uncomfortably close to the old Soviet tactic of defining dissidents as insane.

The real questions Timothy McVeigh poses, the ones I think we are all trying to duck by demonizing him, is the same one that the Nuremberg trials implicitly raised but never answered. Is the killing of innocents as "collateral damage" inflicted in pursuit of a political end ever justified?

If we answer "no", then we have to start asking hard questions about Bob Kerrey's SEAL team, and about the agents who killed at Waco — and about the Gulf War in which McVeigh, killing Iraqis for his country, earned a medal. Most Americans today aren't prepared to take that pacifist a line.

But if we answer "yes", we have to start asking even harder questions about where we draw the line. How do we distinguish between the state-sanctioned killings of innocents at Waco and Ruby Ridge, the ‘terrorism’ of Timothy McVeigh, and the revolutionary violence of the U.S.'s Founding Fathers?

If we reject the pacifist "no", is there any standard more principled than "winners write the history books"? That is the final and most troubling question the unrepentant McVeigh raises, and the one that the media frenzy of analysis is evading. Perhaps because, deep down, we know we have no good answers.

And it's not an academic question, because if history is any guide Timothy McVeigh won't be the last of his kind. What can we teach our honorable men, our war heroes, our Kerreys and McVeighs, that will keep them from becoming what we judge to be monsters?

The murdered children of Waco, Ruby Ridge, Oklahoma City and Thanh Pong demand an answer.