He believed in injustice. He believed in a cycle of violence. But he also believed that, deep down, people committing atrocities had reasons -- though twisted ones -- for doing so.
"I think I had been of that generation that said that evil didn't really exist," Simon says. "It sounds like such an ancient antique religious precept."
Sarajevo changed all that. Reporting in war-torn Bosnia in the 1990s, Simon's academic worldview paled and withered against the backdrop of gunfire, starvation and atrocity. "The whole society had a homicidal mentality," he says. "In Sarajevo, I saw the face of evil."
He notes that somebody criticized his novel about the siege of Sarajevo -- Pretty Birds -- for not portraying the perpetrators of the slaughter as three-dimensionally as the victims.
"I thought, no, because those people are evil," Simon says. "I don't think I need to waste much intellectual firepower reflecting on their motivation. They're homicidal maniacs."
Pretty Birds was followed in 2008 by Simon's second novel, Windy City, a political yarn about Chicago elections -- where the corruption is only matched by the chaos.
Simon has been reporting for NPR since 1977. In that time, he has covered stories in all 50 states and on every continent. He has interviewed both Ariel Sharon and street kids in Rio. He's reported on war, famine, scandal and disaster -- and won a Peabody for doing it. In that time, he says he has seen NPR grow from being simply an alternative source of news to "being the first-level source of news and information for 30 million people in the country."
Whereas NPR reporters mostly used to sit down in their studios and interview analysts, Simon says that now they're conducting real investigative journalism. He sees the increasing popularity of NPR as both a testament to NPR's quality and a collapse of the quality at many other news organizations.
Simon laments the way that investigative journalism has met the brunt of the budget ax. News organizations that want to do "high-level investigative journalism," he says, have to be willing to send out a team of half a dozen reporters and "come back with nothing." With the constraints of today's media landscape, however, that's usually not feasible.
But at his upcoming lecture at Spokane Community College, Simon will focus on the future. The next president will have to face some awfully thorny issues on the horizon, Simon says. He says there's a difference between the issues we're talking about today -- like the bailout -- and the unforeseen choices the next president will have to make.
"We have been understandably preoccupied with the question of nuclear proliferation," Simon says. "[But] there are all kinds of new weapon systems that are being developed, including space-based weapons."
As both military and medical technology marches forward, Simon says, the reality of choices keep changing.
"I think the whole debate we've had for years about medical is complicated by what medical care can do today," Simon says. It would be one thing to, say, guarantee health care for everyone in the 1980s. But today, when medicine promises to make fantastical inroads into genetic manipulation and organ farming, the question gets muddier and muddier.
And because he's a reporter, it's Simon's mission to keep asking those questions. Not "gotcha" questions or trick questions -- but questions that illuminate and elucidate. Questions like: What's in store for American's future? What is "evil"? And how do we fight it?
Scott Simon speaks on Tuesday, Oct. 28, at 7 pm at the SCC Lair, Bldg. 6, Mission Ave. and Greene St. Free. Call 533-7042.