In the best of times, the Biblical injunction "love thy neighbor" is hard to live by.
But in the worst of times, some die by those scriptural words. That's what happened on Sept. 11, when so many gave everything for the sake of neighbors and strangers.
In some sad ways, America is a better place today. A blood sacrifice has left us the living with a renewed commitment to faith, religious or civic -- often both. That wasn't what Osama bin Laden had in mind, but then the devil doesn't always get victory, or even sympathy.
For months, the somber gravity of funerals and memorial services has pulled Americans together. And so this Christmas season will be more sober and profound, as people recall the wailing of bagpipes at gravesides amid the caroling, wassailing and egg-nogging of holiday parties.
But will that special spirit slip away, as Americans slide back to "normal"? Not if we take time to accept instruction from the recently released videotape of bin Laden, chortling over his terrorist plotting. The image of the cheery terror-chief remembering aloud how "overjoyed" he was at the 9-11 news should remain etched in our memory.
And to see these al-Qaida home movies in their entirety is to be reminded of bin Laden satanism. "We calculated in advance the number of casualties from the enemy, who would be killed based on the position of the tower," he tells visitors, adding, "I was the most optimistic of them all." Smiling smugly, he relates that some of the 19 terrorists did not know that they had signed on to a suicide mission, not a mere hijacking: "We did not reveal the operation to them until they are there and just before they boarded the planes."
If we ponder the tape -- and news reports suggest that more such tapes could become available -- in the way that we ponder old newsreels of Hitler or Stalin, we will come away better, because the highest virtues are accentuated by proximity to the lowest evils.
That was the point made by C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) in his classic of Christian apologetics, "The Screwtape Letters." Collected into a book, they are a sly exercise in reverse theology: Lewis imagined Screwtape, a veteran demon, writing instructions on the stealing of souls to his nephew, Wormwood, a rookie in deviltry.
Although Lewis wrote the letters against the backdrop of World War II, he emphasized humdrum sins, such as envy, resentment and hypocrisy. The goal of "Our Father Below," Screwtape coaches, is to "muddy the waters" of honest thought and belief, not by radical wrongdoing, but by accumulating banalities of evil.
So Wormwood goes to work on his "patient," a civilian Englishman, who feels the lure of relativism and materialism. But then disaster strikes; the patient converts to Christianity. Indeed, he clings to his faith, even as the devils conspire to cloud his mind, attempting, for example, to blur the distinction between love and lust.
At the end, the wartime backdrop comes crashing down; the patient is killed during a Nazi air raid. Screwtape describes "the scream of bombs, the fall of houses, the stink and taste of high explosive on the lips and lungs." But as the patient is dying, "there was a sudden clearing of the eyes," as he saw the hell that he had avoided and the heaven to which he was headed.
From his down-under perspective, Screwtape laments that in times of tragedy "courage becomes so obviously lovely and important that all our work is undone."
In a ferocious conclusion, he turns on his protege, Wormwood, and cannibalizes him. And so a stronger monster feasts on a lesser monster, just as bin Laden was happy to send others to their deaths as he himself stayed hidden.
"The Screwtape Letters" have been continuously in print since the 1940s, thanks to Lewis' transcendent insight into the human condition, including temptation. And now we have a video sequel of sorts, what might be called simply the Screwtapes.
Bin Laden may lack Lewis' style, and he certainly lacks his grace, but to look upon him is to look upon a wickedness, a bentness that begs for another C.S. Lewis to describe adequately.
But in the meantime, there are lessons there -- for believers, for unbelievers, for those who are determined to make sure that Sept. 11 is remembered, and yet not repeated.