Tragedy can ennoble its spectators, and not only in the theatre. The American response to the destruction of the World Trade Centre has been measured and dignified as well as forceful. This desirable combination should ensure that the rest of us have a much better new year than seemed possible three and a half months ago.
At the time, 11 September appeared to be a disaster. A brutal exploitation of the vulnerability of advanced societies, it reminded us of the natural advantages enjoyed by barbarians, who care nothing for human life, in their dealings with liberal democracies, which are expected to guarantee their citizens the nearest possible approximation to immortality. In the aftermath of 11 September, many of us cowered in psychological bunkers, expecting further atrocities, assuming that even if America had the will to assert itself, a desperate price would have to be paid.
Now, 110 days later, we have cautious grounds for optimism, and America's doubting allies appear to have made the same mistake as its enemies. We underestimated the moral strength of the Great Republic. We ignored the Tod Beamer factor.
Even Europeans who admire the United States often enjoy gentle mockery at its expense. We are amused by the sort of Americans who will wear two or even three tartans in the same outfit, who march through art galleries talking at the tops of their voices, and who give their children absurd names, such as Tod Beamer.
Mr Beamer was travelling on the fourth aeroplane, the one that was probably meant to destroy the Capitol. But he and some fellow passengers realised what was happening. So rather than perish as victims, they decided to die like Americans. They strode up the aisle to glory.
Ulysses S Grant and Robert E Lee depended on the Tod Beamers of their day. Later on, men like Mr Beamer were the bedrock of Pershing's Doughboys, Patton's advances and Macarthur's return. Whenever "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" was played, theirs were the feet that were marching to the drum. In recent decades, official America may have been afflicted by irresolution and despondency. But 100 million or so Tod Beamers were always out there, unaffected by political limp-wristedness, just waiting the call to rally to the bugle and the flag. On 11 September, that call came. It was answered.
One politician understood this more swiftly than anyone else. The US Defense Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, is a hard and difficult man. Recently, one of his allies commented ruefully that you could go into a meeting on Don Rumsfeld's side and still find that within two minutes he was gripping your throat with one hand and your testicles with the other. To opponents, he is not so gentle. In his Memoirs, Henry Kissinger pays Mr Rumsfeld a tribute by describing him as the most obstreperous colleague he ever encountered – and the former secretary of state was referring to the days when his authority in government was second only to President Nixon's. Nobody but Rumsfeld would have dared challenge him.
Mr Rumsfeld is that most dangerous and exhilarating political phenomenon: an old man in a hurry. Recalled unexpectedly to the Pentagon – and a job he had already held, a quarter of a century ago – his first priority was a renewed confrontation with unfinished business. When Mr Rumsfeld was last in office, the US was in retreat. Defeat in Vietnam had encouraged America's enemies, foreign and domestic. Mr Rumsfeld did not enjoy the ensuing demoralisation; he is not temperamentally suited to the management of decline. So in psycho-dramatic terms, he returned to the Pentagon with a concealed agenda: to re-fight the Vietnam War, with a victorious outcome.
11 September gave him his opportunity. Confronted with that challenge, America had no choice. If it had faltered, it might have remained a bull elephant in technological terms, but it would have been in thrall to all the world's mice. There was only one way in which the USA could retain its military authority and its self-respect. It had to vindicate its claim to superpower status.
In military terms, this means more than the destruction of Osama bin Laden. It must involve pre-emptive measures to subjugate the rogue states which could otherwise provide the havens for his successors: Somalia, Sudan, Yemen – and above all, Iraq. In Washington, and despite Colin Powell's occasional back-slidings, Saddam's destruction is already encompassed. As the Blair Government is well aware, it is not a question of whether, merely of when and how.
This new American posture would not have been possible without 11 September. It was never likely that this would be an isolationist administration. Its key members were foreign affairs veterans, who had spent their careers thinking about the projection of American power. They had all been inspired by Ronald Reagan's belief in American exceptionalism; they too wanted to ensure that the lights from the City on the Hill would always burn brightly. But there were worries about the American peoples' commitment to this renewed version of manifest destiny.
The USA had a superpower's strength. Did it still have a superpower's will? The most important members of the Bush administration hoped and believed that enough Americans shared their outlook on the world, but until 11 September, they were not certain that they were right. The resolute public mood since then has answered all the questions about will, and in the affirmative. America is a nation of Tod Beamers.
It would be foolish to dismiss this new mood as a mere hawkish spasm. It is far more thoughtful than that. Most Americans now realise that no president could guarantee their safety solely by defending their borders, and that it is wiser to take advance measures to defeat America's enemies on their own soil, rather than sitting back and letting them act at their leisure.
All this should make the rest of us feel much more secure. Indeed, once Mr bin Laden is safely dead, one might even conclude that he is owed a debt of gratitude. If he had not struck when he did, he would have entered the new year with his network of terror intact, while down the road in Baghdad, Saddam Hussein was pressing ahead with his programme for weapons of mass destruction. Just after 11 September, some media talked, hyperbolically, about the destruction of Manhattan. If Mr bin Laden had held back for a couple of years, that might have been the literal truth.
As it is, by moving prematurely, he alerted the West to the mortal dangers which were maturing their malice, just over the horizon. He woke us all to the threat of terrorism, and of terrorist states.
Fortunately, he was also wrong in his assumptions about Western decadence. He had reckoned without Tod Beamer. I hope that at midnight tonight, a few glasses will be raised to the memory of that American hero.
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