David Thomson: Climate of Unreason

Whatever the cause of yesterday's air disaster, there can be no doubt about its effect: to deal another shattering blow to the American psyche. Here, an award-winning writer - who lives in the US but grew up in wartime London - wonders if his adopted compatriots can muster a new Blitz spirit
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The Independent US

What has happened? As I write, we know only the barest facts. We know that, yesterday morning, five miles out of Kennedy Airport, on its way to Santo Domingo, an American Airlines plane crashed. It came down in the New York neighbourhood known as Queens, and it set several houses on fire. There were more than 250 people on board the plane, which was still full of jet fuel. The FBI has reported that there is, as yet, no evidence of terrorist action. It may have been, simply, a plane crash.

But what will it mean? That is really what everything is about in the shadow of terrorism, and in the paranoia that begins to deprive the United States of the air it has taken for granted. In a quite awesome way, the land of pragmatism and profit, of ruthless materialism, has surrendered to irrational beliefs. They – whoever "they" are – are bringing us to their level, one way or another.

Here's just one example. I was at a dinner party in San Francisco on Saturday, and a woman – a woman who seemed entirely sane and calm – told me this story. In the days before 11 September, a mentally disturbed Arab boy, aged 12, who attends a school in Brooklyn, was pointing in the direction of the World Trade Centre and saying, "September 11th, they come down." Of course, he and his family were investigated, along with one rather under-reported phenomenon: that (allegedly) an unusually large number of Muslim Americans did not report for work in Manhattan that day.

I am telling you what I have been told. It is what we all do in cities. The FBI, goes the story, traced the boy's contacts; they did what the FBI is supposed to do. They tracked and traced, and they must have interviewed people – if they could find interpreters. And all they could discover was that the boy was and is mentally disturbed.

Late last week (and this is what I was told on Saturday), that same boy was predicting that something would happen yesterday, 12 November, which is a public holiday to mark Veterans Day.

What does this mean? That mental disturbance is no impediment to being lucky at gambling? After all, there are people who win two nights in a row in Las Vegas, and no one reports them to the FBI. That this kid knows someone who knows? Or that we are all of us now, like people who live in earthquake country, waiting for after-shocks, scarcely able to sleep and so sensitive we respond to every sigh in the air?

So how will the United States react? Of course, I don't know – and I am as wary as anyone of predictions that intrude upon the reaction itself. But I can repeat things I felt on 11 September, and which have only been accentuated in the two months since. Much of it turns on a comparison with 1941. You must recall that that was a very different America, one that had just endured 10 years of severe economic depression, one that had an altogether greater faith in government, authority systems, its educational process, its family life, its sense of justice and truth.

There is immense insistence nowadays that we are the same people, the same country, ready for "the long haul". "Let's roll!" said President Bush in a big speech last week – and, really, though he was echoing the words of a passenger who helped bring one of the 11 September planes down "safely" in Pennsylvania farmland, he might as well have been saying "Let's rock'n'roll." It was rhetoric that no one could define – and that is also part of the present climate of unreason.

I wasn't in the US in 1941. I was only born that year. But I was a child in a bombed London. And I have never felt that the American public today was well equipped to withstand a steady, albeit unexpected campaign of terror. The tragedy of 11 September was a great crisis, and there is something very American about such monumental events. They are show time. They are high drama. They make for victims and heroes – in other words, our roles are clear and self-evident. You can fantasise about a crisis, and imagine yourself playing all manner of grand roles in it. "Let's roll!"

But habit, persistence, repetition, climate – these are things that Americans flinch from. They are undramatic. They are boringly real. There is no role-playing that will sort them out. I felt on the 11th that there would be an immense surge of national energy – much of it admirable – but that it would falter. For this is no longer a people accustomed to prolonged hardship and difficulty, or blessed with stamina. This is a country coming off the hysterical economy of the late Eighties and the Nineties, a country all too ready to think of itself as the greatest in the world, which has a certain way of putting less value in knowing or caring much about other countries.

This is also a nation whose much vaunted intelligence systems have found a new habit of failure: no, they didn't know that 11 September was going to happen. No, they don't really understand how anthrax works or where it's coming from. These are not things you can just look up on the Web and check out. Indeed, the only way of dealing with them is to begin again to gather enormous amounts of scientific and historical knowledge – things that the US educational system has so largely abandoned.

This is also a country that has detained a number of its own citizens, without charge, and without much legal advice. We did that in 1941, with Japanese-Americans, and we now admit that it was wrong. But people who accept their government's argument as to who "they" are, and where "they" are (no matter the other failings in intelligence), turn a blind eye to the steady erosion of the Bill of Rights, which is one of the US's modest claims on greatness, and a drastic threat to the ideology of terrorism. But we have set some parts of it aside. And the more afraid we become, the more consumed by urban legends, the more invasive we will be.

There's another notion that struck some of us on 11 September. It was that not just the World Trade Centre had been destroyed; trade itself had been undermined. That was all the more alarming because of the many signs that the US economy was sliding fast long before the 11th. A few hours after yesterday's crash, airports were closing. Before long, there is every chance that many more airlines will follow suit. For nothing has sustained the perilous unreality of our boom but confidence. And nothing is so vital or so brittle in America. You can feel the confidence rushing out of the body like blood after a savage wound.

I hope that yesterday's event will prove no more than an air crash – a normal kind of incident. But I wonder about America's capacity for holding on to that much common sense, especially with the remorseless whipping of the media, of TV channels that actually need crises to survive. Never mind the criticisms of the US that have been levelled by people living in caves in Afghanistan. This is a moment when the US requires the habit of reasoned self-criticism, of proper debate as opposed to "Let's roll!" Forget rolling. We need to walk upright, watchful and alert, and start thinking.