An age of innocence persists in the nation's heartland

War on terrorism: Middle America
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The Independent US

Rarely has the United States been so sorely tested – the country grievously attacked, bioterror let loose on the east coast, a war underway in Afghanistan and geopolitical dominoes clattering right and left. But here in the heartland people seem strangely unbothered by it all.

Nobody is hunkering down, fearful that they might be next on the terrorists' hit list. Nobody is particularly concerned about anthrax powder arriving through the mail. There are no scares about explosions at crowded shopping malls at Hallowe'en, or children being given poisoned candy when they go trick-or-treating. Few qualms are expressed about the political situation, at home or abroad, and even the economy seems to be doing fine, with consumption up and unemployment down across many of the prairie and Rocky Mountain states.

"Many of us feel very little connection to what has happened because it is all so far away. People I know aren't terribly skittish or jittery," said Pam Burgard, a nurse and mother from Lenexa in the outer suburbs of Kansas City.

The Burgard family home, with its views of peaceful rolling hills and trees displaying the full riot of autumn colours, still exudes an innocence that the big cities on the coasts have largely lost. Construction continues apace on new greenfield housing, and homes on one stretch of 93rd Street that like to vie with each other over holiday decorations Hallowe'en displays of pumpkins, ghosts and fake spiders' webs. There is just one American flag on the whole block: even in this most staunchly conservative and patriotic part of the country, there are fewer Stars and Stripes on display than in supposed counter-cultural bastions such as San Francisco.

The local mall, Oak Park, is full of young mothers with their toddlers and cheery shoppers talking about forthcoming weddings and holidays in the Bahamas.

The peace and sheer normality seem uncanny to anyone visiting from the pressure-cooker atmosphere of New York or Los Angeles. This does not feel like the nation getting back to business, as George Bush has urged, so much as a nation that prefers not to stick its head above the parapet and see the reality of the world around. And the phenomenon is not just restricted to the suburbs.

In the Westport district of Kansas City, once a hideout for bootleggers and West-bound adventurers – and now the centre of the city's night life – the bars hop until the early hours, even on weeknights. Conversation revolves around boyfriends, drinking contests, music and movies, rarely straying into current events.

A bartender at Kelly's pub, the oldest establishment in the city, said with obvious satisfaction: "We've seen a bit of a slowdown because the business travellers have stopped coming. But you should see this place at 3.30 in the afternoon with all the regulars."

Nowhere is the disconnection from the post-11 September world starker than in Kansas City's Hallowe'en preparations. Three packed pages of events listed in the Kansas City Star include a "Terror Train" and a "Hell Night", neither title raising any eyebrows locally. While city officials in more densely populated parts of the country are cancelling Hallowe'en events because of the poisoned candy scare , the heartland remains blissfully unconcerned.

The events of 11 September did not go entirely unnoticed, of course. Court houses and government buildings were sealed off for several days. There were emotional outpourings of patriotic sentiment in churches and at ball games.

But that phase is over now, replaced by vaguer, more trivial concerns. Some people, like Mrs Burgard, worry about their college-age children travelling overseas. Baseball fans who remember the once legendary rivalry between the New York Yankees and the Kansas City Royals catch themselves admitting they could live with a Yankees victory in the World Series.

Ask these people about the global ramifications of 11 September and the "war on terrorism", and the chances are they simply won't understand the question. For Mrs Burgard, for example, terrorism was an evil that needed to be stamped out, not understood, and as far as she was concerned the Bush administration had that task in hand.

The dramatic lack of curiosity or concern stems in part from the cultural homogeneity of much of middle America. Tom Katynski, a local newspaper editor in Great Falls, Montana, said nobody in his town had discussed the local Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile silo and how effective it was likely to be in defending the country since 11 September .

The emphasis, instead, was on cheering on "our boys" in the military who might be called to serve in Afghanistan – without, of course, any questions about the wisdom or the purpose of the mission itself.

Mr Katynski said he had just spent a weekend across the Canadian border in Calgary, where the atmosphere was completely different – Muslim groups demonstrating and political debate going on everywhere. "I guess we're not a very diverse kind of place," he said.

The lack of deeper questioning also reflects a trend evident in the US broadcast media in recent weeks. While the television networks seemed to appreciate the need to deepen knowledge of Middle Eastern and central Asian affairs, the coverage has now reverted to near-slavish reporting of government communiqués and press conferences and intense converage of the anthrax issue, to the exclusion of almost all else. So-called expert commentators, when they are called upon at all, are overwhelmingly white – either ex-military or ex-CIA, for the most part – with few voices heard from the Middle East, the Gulf or central Asia.

That, in turn, infuriates a group of students at Kansas University in Lawrence, about 35 miles south-west of Kansas City, who conducted a 36-hour fast and teach-in on the crisis this week. "If people have fallen asleep over this crisis, it's because there is a very efficient machine in this country to put people to sleep," said Sarah Hoskinson, a second-year religious studies major.

America's problem, she suggested, was that people had it too easy and saw no need to think politically. "They are stunned by what happened ... but they couldn't care when sanctions against Iraq kill hundreds of thousands of people. Well, perhaps they would care, but they are not paying attention," she said.

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