Muted revelry as America gathers for Thanksgiving

War on Terrorism: US morale
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The Independent US

As tens of millions of Americans took to planes, trains and the roads yesterday for an extended weekend at home, Donald Rumsfeld, the Defence Secretary, visited Fort Bragg, the North Carolina base for many of the special forces now operating inside Afghanistan.

President Bush was addressing 10,000 soldiers and sharing a pre-Thanksgiving meal at Fort Campbell in Kentucky, home to the Army's 101st Airborne, a paratroop division known as the "Screaming Eagles". For most people, however, the ritual of the fourth Thursday in November is unchanging. A menu of turkey, cranberry sauce and the trimmings, followed by pumpkin or pecan pie – plus wall-to-wall American football games on television to fill the gaps when family conversation flags.

Thanksgiving is, by common consent, far and away the nicest holiday of the American year. It is not commercial or religious, just a gluttonous gathering of family and friends as the world's richest nation counts its many blessings.

But this year, after the traumatic violation of American innocence by a group of fanatics, the blessings seem less obvious and Thanksgiving's sweet flavour is tinged with bitterness and sorrow. The shadow of 11 September is visible everywhere, from the empty places around the tables at the homes of the victims to the continuing campaign in Afghanistan and the latest fatal anthrax casualty, in Connecticut.

The best thing about the Thanksgiving holiday is its relative lack of commercialisation: some of its features may be a touch hokey, but there are no presents, no cards, no hoopla. The respite, needless to say, lasts just 24 hours. Tomorrow is the formal start of the Christmas retail season – an invasion of the malls, which lay on special sales for one of the most ferocious shopping days on the calendar.

And in 2001, with the economy in recession, the mood on the malls will be monitored more closely than ever – as closely as the transport service was yesterday, traditionally the busiest such day of the entire year. Road traffic congestion, rail problems, airport delays: all are reported on with the statistical exactitude that obsesses Americans, and a breathless zeal worthy of the real military campaign 7,000 miles away.

Unsurprisingly, air travel, which is expected to be down 15 to 20 per cent yesterday from the levels of Thanksgiving 2000, has taken the biggest hit. This time, we are told, 87 per cent of the predicted 34 million Americans who are on the move (6 per cent fewer than in 2000) will travel by car.

Everywhere, however, the contradictions of these strange times abound. "Live your normal lives, don't panic," Mr Bush urges his fellow citizens, and what could be more normal than Thanksgiving? But in almost the next breath, his aides announce that one of the special pleasures of the holiday season in Washington – public tours of the White House when it is ablaze with Christmas decorations – has been halted "for security reasons". Given that security for anyone visiting the White House is already draconian, this is widely seen as precisely the sort of overreaction that has given the rest of the country the impression that the capital is in a state of siege.

The result has been a slump in the city's convention business and its $2bn-a-year tourism industry, and the loss of thousands of jobs. In these homes, too, far from the front in Afghanistan and the devastation in downtown Manhattan, Thanksgiving celebrations will be muted.