America the neurotic and vulnerable

The US was already edgy but, after the TWA tragedy, security anxiety has scaled new heights. John Carlin reports
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The Independent Online
Hollywood's latest sci-fi blockbuster, Independence Day, borrows its ending from H G Wells. In War of the Worlds, Wells' invading Martians are defeated by a virus to which earthlings are immune. In Independence Day it is a computer virus, the brainchild of an American cybercadet, that knocks out the otherwise invincible alien battalions.

The balance of military power today between the United States and the rest of the world is not dissimilar to that between the extra-terrestrial invaders portrayed in Independence Day and planet Earth. But as America's enemies know, and Americans themselves are beginning to understand, in real life a virus does exist capable of stealing under the defences of the one remaining superpower. A deadly strain difficult to detect and against which there is no reliable protection: terrorism.

Whether or not the explosion that destroyed TWA Flight 800 on Wednesday night was caused by a bomb, this is the hypothesis which has leapt to American minds. The realisation is dawning on a country whose wars this century have all been fought in distant lands that terrorism is no longer something that happens to other people.

The bombing of the World Trade Centre was, as they say in America, the wake-up call. The Oklahoma bomb rammed home the lesson that no one was safe - a lesson picked up long before Wednesday's disaster by the organisers of the Atlanta Olympic Games, who have been going to lengths far greater than the organisers of the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles to fend off potential threats.

"Americans, who once considered themselves immune to these kinds of attacks," the New York Times said on Friday, "have steadily come to recognise the loss of their invulnerability."

How else to explain the readiness with which the notion was greeted on Thursday that the 747 might have been shot down by a missile launched from Long Island, the summer playground of the New York rich?

All the more shocking to Americans is their discovery that they have joined the community of terrorist-afflicted nations despite having won the Cold War - a victory which convinced them (see Francis Fukuyama's The End of History) that they were entering a new era of unchallenged authority and carefree peace.

Complacency continues, in some quarters, to prevail. In the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, a weighty bi-monthly tome, two eminent conservative intellectuals argue that Americans "have never had it so good". William Kristol and Robert Kagan write that Americans now rejoice in "the security not only to live within their own borders but to travel and do business safely and without encumbrance almost anywhere in the world".

From this rosily skewed premise the authors go on to ask the question: "What should America's international role be?" To which the answer, they say, is: "Benevolent hegemony... supporting its friends, advancing its interests, and standing up for its principles around the world."

The authors describe this prescription as "a neo-Reaganite foreign policy". But it is one with whose general aims President Clinton, who has dispatched US troops all over the planet during his tenure, would not disagree.

The flaw in the argument is that all this muscular philanthropy is not translating into the blessed state of security at home and abroad which Messrs Kristol and Kagan would have us believe Americans enjoy. Never mind Flight 800. American installations have been in a state of heightened alert, according to the Pentagon, since the bombing of the US military base in Saudi Arabia last month. Travellers who have flown on an American airline in the last year, on a domestic or international flight, will have noticed that security precautions are more intrusive.

Numerous pundits interviewed on American television during the last 72 hours have argued that the lesson of the TWA tragedy is that what America needs is still more airport security. But this may only be part of the solution. On Washington's Channel Eight on Friday night a "terrorism expert" by the name of Professor Richard Rubenstein came up with a thesis so startlingly subversive that the clearly uncomfortable interviewer was at pains to shut him up.

"We must ask the question, 'Why does the US provoke such hatred around the world?' " Prof Rubenstein said. In seeking to allocate blame for the terrorism phobia to which America has suddenly succumbed, one must also look, ventured the professor, to US foreign policy. Whereupon it was straight to a com- mercial break.

The reason for the Channel Eight interviewer's unease was that his audience takes it as gospel that America's policy towards the rest of the world is an extension of a national character whose chief virtues are amiability and high-mindedness.

Since only 10 per cent of Americans own passports it should not, perhaps, come as a surprise that most are ignorant of the resentment they generate the world over. Partly this resentment is the price of empire. But partly too it is the consequence of a foreign policy too often blinded by internal electoral considerations. Nowhere more so than in the Middle East, where the perception is that Washington's unconditional support of Israel, seen most vividly after the recent Israeli artillery strike into Lebanon, is a function of US politicians' reluctance to offend the mightily influential Jewish lobby.

Whatever the cause of the TWA crash, the readiness of Americans to believe it was a bomb demonstrates that they now see terrorism as their problem too. From this understanding wisdom might flow. The day may come when Prof Rubenstein is not alone in pondering whether the myth underlying the box office success of Independence Day - that "they" are always the bad guys and "we" always the good - might merit some revision.