This summer, as the odious Barry Bonds advanced toward Henry Aaron’s home-run record, I told a friend: “I’m going to write Bonds a letter.  And it’s going to be even more vitriolic than the one I wrote Aaron 30 years ago.”

Just kidding, of course!  When Aaron broke the most venerable record in baseball—then held, of course, by Babe Ruth—his triumph was turned into a nightmare by an avalanche of ugly mail, full of obscenities, racial insults, and even death threats.  I was amazed.  What kind of man does it take to write such a thing at all, let alone carry it through by putting it into a stamped envelope and sticking it into the mailbox?  Wouldn’t self-respect, at some point in the process, stay his hand?

Evidently not.  Thousands of such men (and women?) went to the trouble of discharging their mad spite on poor Aaron via the U.S. Postal Service, though I’ve never heard anyone boast of having done so.  As with restroom graffiti, you know someone is doing it, but you can’t imagine who, since nobody admits it.  Pride of authorship seems to be minimal.  I guess it isn’t the sort of thing one brags about.

My amazement has abated since I got on the internet.  E-mail seems to have liberated the sort of demons that assailed Aaron.  In the free-for-all of cyberspace, people can and do write things (to total strangers) that would presumably appal their mothers, things they would never dare say to one’s face, but which they feel they may utter risk-free, with the total impunity of those who lack even the inhibitions of conscience and self-respect.

I suppose it tells us something about human nature that some people are willing to be as abysmally base as Aaron’s tormentors.  “Most men quarrel because they do not know how to argue,” says Chesterton.  Yes, very true, but they certainly do know how to quarrel.

Still, it’s puzzling.  What furtive satisfaction can there be in doing something so self-debasing you’d be ashamed to tell anyone you had done it?  And why should Aaron let anonymous expressions of hate, from people both cowardly and incapable, spoil his pleasure in his achievement?  We all want to be loved, but, when he expected to be lionized, he found himself irrationally hated instead, and it was so unnerving that he still hasn’t got over it.

This is the mystery of hatred.  Love can be a mystery, too, but at least it makes more sense, and we can admire it.  We can only shudder at what Coleridge called the “motiveless malignity” of Shakespeare’s Iago—“Honest Iago,” as everyone calls him, until his terrible lie is exposed.

Another Shakespeare character gives us a clue.  When Laertes learns that Hamlet has killed his father, his fury is measureless:

To hell, allegiance!  Vows to the blackest devil!

Conscience and grace to the profoundest pit!

I dare damnation.

He will “cut his [Hamlet’s] throat i’ the church.”

Daring damnation comes close to the essence of it.  Hamlet chides himself, ironically, for not being a Laertes.  He, too, hates the man who has murdered his father, but he cannot quite cross the fatal line: “Conscience doth make cowards of us all.”  He worries about his own salvation, and the ghost may be a devil trying “to damn me.”  In one sense, revenge may seem a son’s duty, but it is also, after all, a sin.

As I write, we are observing the fifth anniversary of the September 11 attacks.  These are often ascribed to Islamic fanaticism, but Islam, of course, condemns both murder and suicide.  The real motive was pure hatred—the self-consuming hatred that is willing to die in order to kill an enemy—even if it was rationalized in Islamic terms, and even if it was provoked, in an important sense, by American foreign policy.  Laertes is greatly provoked, too.  So is every suicide bomber.

Hate can be as selfless as love, when it makes the enemy the center of one’s being.  Though love may be patient and humble, hate is in a hurry.  It is usually connected to indignity, a violent sense of the humiliation of the self.  And unless it is avenged, it can become unbearable.  “The devil, that proud spirit, cannot endure to be mocked.”  Love can laugh at itself, but hate insists on having the last laugh, at any cost.

Americans are startled to find themselves hated.  Like Aaron, they expect the world’s admiration and are stunned by its loathing, as if anti-Americanism were contrary to nature.  Wouldn’t the Iraqis welcome us for liberating them, toppling a tyrant, and bringing them a democracy like our own?  Fred Barnes of the Weekly Standard has called the Iraq war “the greatest act of benevolence one nation has ever done for another”—a judgment that, by now, requires little comment.

If life were like that, the New York Yankees would be the best-loved team in baseball.  Maybe love makes the world go round, but hate seems to make most of the history.  Men have always been willing to die in war, giving what Lincoln called “the last full measure of devotion.”  Is it impious to suggest that devotion may play a smaller part than spite and malice?  Envy used to be recognized as one of the capital sins, but modernity has banished the ideas of the soul and diabolical rages.  It looks for the causes of war in economic factors, as if Cain had killed Abel in a border dispute.

We have a rich literature of love, but a relatively skimpy literature of hate.  A fuller analysis of this darker sentiment might help us understand, for example, why our governments now prefer to call war “defense.”