It's about time the US got over 9/11
09 February 2003
If anyone had told me, in the autumn of 2001, that we were less than 18 months away from what might become the world's first nuclear war, I would have thought they were insane. In the half century since Hiroshima and Nagasaki, no one has been that reckless or indeed that stupid - even, or so I thought, the Bush White House. Then came the twin towers and everything changed overnight, to the point where we find ourselves apparently on the threshold of a terrifying conflict in the Middle East. So the question I am going to ask, at the risk of causing great offence, is this: when is the US going to get over the events of 11 September?
I am not talking about people directly affected by the terrorist attacks, the survivors and relatives whose lives changed for ever on that horrible day. Nor am I referring to the millions of decent Americans who are just as opposed to war with Saddam Hussein as I am. What I am challenging is a mindset that sees al-Qa'ida or Saddam behind every tragedy, from the Oklahoma bombing to the murder of a detective in Manchester and the loss of the space shuttle last weekend. It is a measure of the paranoia afflicting parts of the US that officials deemed it necessary to announce, only hours after Columbia blew up in the sky over Texas, that a terrorist attack was not suspected. I know Saddam is a cunning old brute, but is it really likely that his agents have penetrated Nasa?
A few days later, after a young American artist was found murdered in a park in east London, police announced that they were looking for two men of Mediterranean or Middle Eastern appearance. An al-Qa'ida connection! That was the conclusion of a friend of another American living in London, who reported it in the Daily Telegraph and described the city as a place where "you could be mugged, murdered, raped or gassed by al-Qa'ida at any moment". Strange, then, that not a single member of my vast circle of friends in London has experienced any of these events within living memory. We have not been infected with anthrax either, although some of us got a flu-like virus at Christmas that turned out to be - well, flu.
It is not that I don't take the threat of terrorism seriously. I am quite prepared to believe there are al-Qa'ida cells in European and American cities, but it is important to keep things in proportion. My guess is that most of us are more likely to be run over by a lorry than die in a terrorist attack, and I certainly do not want people in this country to reach the advanced state of paranoia reported in some American states. Just the sight of a foreigner reading Arabic is enough for a busybody to summon the authorities, which is what happened when a friend of mine took an Egyptian newspaper from his bag on an internal flight a few months ago.
Paranoia is not the only problem. The administration's war against the Taliban was neither a great military success (huge areas of Afghanistan are still in the hands of vicious warlords), nor did it provide the kind of catharsis that millions of shocked Americans demanded after 11 September. President Bush needs an enemy and Saddam fits the bill nicely, even though no one with an ounce of common sense credits Colin Powell's claims last week about an alliance between Iraq and al-Qa'ida. Powell did make a powerful case but it was for pressing on with weapons inspections, and giving Hans Blix immediate access to information from spy satellites, rather than for going to war in the next few weeks.
The Bush administration creates the impression that the US is still as wounded and ready to lash out as it was in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the World Trade Centre. I am not sure that this is true of the majority of Americans, but the country's moribund political structure and the Democrats' horror of appearing unpatriotic combine to make effective opposition very difficult. The President may take comfort from the thought that Tony Blair's Gladstonian vision lends him some moral authority, but it does not wash over here. If the world has become a more dangerous place since 11 September 2001, it is not solely because of the activities of a bunch of Islamic terrorists.