IN THE GOTHIC splendor of the National Cathedral, that liturgy of trauma, George W. Bush made the most stirring - and ominous - declaration of his presidency. It was Sept. 14, 2001. ''Just three days removed from these events,'' he said, ''Americans do not yet have ''the distance of history.'' But our responsibility to history is already clear: to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil.''
The statement fell on the ears of most Americans, perhaps, as mere rhetoric of the high pulpit, but as the distance of history lengthens, events show that in those few words the president redefined his raison d'etre and that of the nation - nothing less than to ''rid the world of evil.'' The unprecedented initiatives taken from Washington in the last two years are incomprehensible except in the context of this purpose.
President Bush, one sees now, meant exactly what he said. Something entirely new, for Americans, at least, is animating their government. The greatest power the earth has ever seen is now expressly mobilized against the world's most ancient mystery. What human beings have proven incapable of doing ever before, George W. Bush has taken on as his personal mission, aiming to accomplish it in one election cycle, two at most.
What the president may not know is that the worst manifestations of evil have been the blowback of efforts to be rid of it. If one can refer to the personification of evil, Satan's great trick consists in turning the fierce energy of such purification back upon itself. Across the distance of history, the most noble ambition has invariably led to the most ignoble deeds. This is because the certitude of nobility overrides the moral qualm that adheres to less transcendent enterprises. The record of this deadly paradox is written in the full range of literature, from Sophocles to Fyodor Dostoyevski to Ursula K. LeGuin, each of whom raises the perennial question: What is permitted to be done in the name of ''ridding the world of evil''?
Is lying allowed? Torture? The killing of children? Or, less drastic, the militarization of civil society? The launching of dubious wars? But wars are never dubious at their launchings. The recognition of complexity - moral as well as martial - comes only with ''the distance of history,'' and it is that perspective that has begun to press itself upon the American conscience now.
Having forthrightly set out to rid the world of evil, first in Afghanistan, then in Iraq, has the United States, willy-nilly, become an instrument of evil? Lying (weapons of mass deception). Torture (if only by US surrogates). The killing of children (''collaterally,'' but inevitably). The vulgarization of patriotism (last week's orgy of bunting). The imposition of chaos (and calling it freedom). The destruction of alliances (''First Iraq, then France''). The invitation to other nations to behave in like fashion (Goodbye, Chechnya). The inexorable escalation (''Bring 'em on!''). The made-in-Washington pantheon of mythologized enemies (first Osama, now Saddam). The transmutation of ordinary young Americans (into dead heroes). How does all of this, or any of it, ''rid the world of evil''?
Which brings us back to that Gothic cathedral of a question: What is evil anyway? Is it the impulse only of tyrants? Of enemies alone? Or is it tied to the personal entitlement onto which America, too, hangs its bunting? Is evil the thing, perhaps, that forever inclines human beings to believe that they are themselves untouched by it? Moral maturity, mellowed across the distance of history, begins in the acknowledgement that evil, whatever its primal source, resides, like a virus in its niche, in the human self. There is no ridding the world of evil for the simple fact that, shy of history's end, there is no ridding the self of it.
But there's the problem with President Bush. It is not the moral immaturity of the texts he reads. Like his callow statement in the National Cathedral, they are written by someone else. When the president speaks, unscripted, from his own moral center, what shows itself is a bottomless void.
To address concerns about the savage violence engulfing ''postwar'' Iraq with a cocksure ''Bring `em on!'' as he did last week, is to display an absence of imagination shocking in a man of such authority. It showed a lack of capacity to identify either with enraged Iraqis who must rise to such a taunt or with young GIs who must now answer for it. Even in relationship to his own soldiers, there is nothing at the core of this man but visceral meanness.
No human being with a minimal self-knowledge could speak of evil as he does, but there is no self-knowledge without a self. Even this short ''distance of history'' shows George W. Bush to be, in that sense, the selfless president, which is not a compliment. It's a warning.