"America is anxious", said a television reporter the other night, as the final wisps of ambiguity were drifting away from above the wreckage in Rockaway. It doesn't really matter which reporter, because they've all been at it over the past few months. America was "struggling to make sense of the tragedy", too ,earlier this week, and, as the papers chimed in the next day we read that it was "reeling" and "trying to come to terms" with that ugly aftershock. Some reporters took personification even further: the attacks of 11 September were "still fresh in the minds" of America and New York, wrote one.
The general effect is the same, whatever the qualifying phrases. A vast country of more than 280 million people is reduced to a single imaginary psychology – usually prey to a single overarching emotion. This isn't the conventional synecdoche by which nation stands for government, either. It's the creation of an actor to take part in an unfolding soap opera, and the instinct covers the bit players as well. A friend who was holidaying in Cornwall at the time of the September attacks tells me that the local paper responded with the headline: "Penwyth grieves with America" – thus allowing its local subscription base to drape a comforting arm round the shoulder of a superpower.
The impulse doesn't need much explanation. Powerful emotions are in the air and it's a straightforward psychological instinct not to think of emotions without thinking too of someone who feels them. And if a single person doesn't actually exist, we automatically create one. The device – and it is a purely literary contrivance – creates a universal joint between human sympathies and abstract situations. You simply can't readily feel weepy or indignant on behalf of a landmass or a population statistic – so "America", grieving, angry, hungry for vengeance – provides an alternative.
And, though this is manifestly a gross simplification of the real state of affairs, it isn't too difficult to think of occasions when such sentimental fictions might be useful.
If Pashtuns and Tajiks, for example, could conjure in their minds some shared personification of Afghanistan – wounded and desperately in need of succour – it might be easier to create a durable peace there. But, while the odd Western journalist has already added her to the cast list of the international melodrama, it's clear she doesn't strike much of a chord in Kabul or Mazar-i-Sharif.
The real problem with personification, though, is that it is impossible to ensure that all its consequences are sweetly empathetic. It is, for example, just as useful to a conqueror as to an ally. Our own Britannia began life not as a shared symbol of national pride but as an image of subjugation on coins struck by Hadrian to celebrate the conquest of Britain. Just like cartoonists today, those who carved triumphal arches needed identifiable figures for their tableaux of empire. (When Britannia reappeared on British coinage, incidentally, it was widely believed that the king's mistress, the Duchess of Richmond, posed for the image – which puts a novel twist on the old joke about politicians doing to the country during the day what they do to their partners at night).
What's more, the sympathies personification can arouse may not run in directions that suit us. On his way to the front in 1914, Hitler was powerfully moved by the sight of the Niederwald monument near Rudesheim – topped with a giant statue of Germania, which supplied him with an external focus for very private feelings of patriotic rage and victimisation. Hitler went on to promote another fatal personification – reducing the diversity and richness of European jewry to the single Der Sturmer image of a hook-nosed parasite – the Jew, a singular encapsulation of millions of individuals.
Personification, in short, is cut from the same cloth as demonisation. Uncle Sam may put have been put out to grass in America as too patriarchal a figure for the times – but he's still very popular in the bazaars of Peshawar and Quetta – where he supplies the effigy-makers with a handy shortcut to a recognisable bonfire.
Better they should burn scarecrows than burn people, you might say, but isn't it at least possible that practicing on the scarecrow makes it easier to burn the people in the end? If you rehearse your rage against a caricature, and find it satisfying to do so, it may be easier to forget that the caricature isn't accurately representative of anything in the real world.
And there is an irrefutable kind of logic here: if it makes sense to grieve for America bereaved, then why should it not equally make sense to hate America as an oppressor, if that's what you believe it is, and to ignore the complexity of American society in that satisfying rush of blood to the head? Which is why – however convenient it is to invent imaginary entities to feel sorry for – we'd be better off reserving our feelings for real people. Cartoons don't need our pity, but they do.