If only people were more intelligent when they talk about America

There is a great deal wrong with US policy, but American-bashing is an excuse for Europeans to avoid looking at themselves

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A few weeks after 11 September, I spoke at a meeting of a human rights group in rural England. Back then – how improbably distant it seems now – we could talk of little else but the slaughter in America. The world had shifted on its axis and anybody concerned with human rights had reason to be concerned. There was a dread that in the international reaction to 11 September, it would become still more difficult to protect individuals from the arbitrary effects of state power. Anything might go, and who knew then what America's military response to the murder of its people would be?

A few weeks after 11 September, I spoke at a meeting of a human rights group in rural England. Back then – how improbably distant it seems now – we could talk of little else but the slaughter in America. The world had shifted on its axis and anybody concerned with human rights had reason to be concerned. There was a dread that in the international reaction to 11 September, it would become still more difficult to protect individuals from the arbitrary effects of state power. Anything might go, and who knew then what America's military response to the murder of its people would be?

But there was a more immediate crisis to be faced; there existed now in our world community an organisation and sentiment that was not only bitterly opposed to the rights-based societies of the West but one that had the wherewithal to inflict catastrophic damage on them. Terrorist murder we had lived with; terrorist mass murder was something altogether new. As the leader of this conspiracy had declared, in a holy war there were no innocent victims. With this assertion Osama bin Laden sought to destroy years of patient, painful progress towards making real the promise of universal human rights.

When I got up to speak at the meeting I concentrated on the threat posed to our collective human rights by bin Laden. I said that 11 September was a crime against humanity by any definition. An army of zealots had deliberately targeted civilians, and, while the Geneva Conventions may not cover loosely organised terrorist groups, we all knew that in moral terms bin Laden stood with some of the worst monsters of our age. As I spoke I noticed a few stony expressions among the listeners. My words were hardly radical in the context of what had just happened, but they were falling on a few deaf ears. In the question-and-answer session that followed some of those stony looks became flinty questions. Yes, it was terrible what happened in America but surely it was the fault of US foreign policy in the Middle East?

In fairness nobody said "They had it coming to them," but there was a shocking willingness on the part of some of the questioners to turn themselves inside out to avoid placing the blame fairly and exclusively on the shoulders of the killers. Terrible yes, but somehow inevitable.

Well, actually, I said there was nothing inevitable about it at all. In the sense that inevitability can be taken to mean that one course of action, or lack of action, can be said to have as its "natural" consequence the murder of thousands... I think I annoyed some of the audience. There is an assumption in some circles that to be pro-human rights must naturally equate with being anti-American, or incapable of believing that anything good can come from the exercise of American power. If you can acknowledge the damage done by US foreign policy in such places as Vietnam and Central America, in parts of Africa and the Middle East, then surely you must in some way believe that what happened on 11 September was bound to happen? When I told one impassioned lady that this was dangerous nonsense, she could only shake her head sorrowfully. "I'm sure you will come around. I know you will."

It's many months later, and even in spite of President Bush and his bumbling and cynicism in the Middle East, I haven't changed my mind one iota. I continue to meet Americans who are horrified by their President's lack of... well, how does one put it charitably, his lack of any grasp of statesmanship. He lacks a lot else besides but we'll stick with international relations for now. There is at last in the US a return to open-minded questioning of the executive and Mr Bush's inadequacies are being savagely exposed. Yet the same Americans who can criticise Bush and recognise the wrongs of US policy find themselves routinely harangued by know-all Europeans. An American woman at another human rights meeting in Oxford came up afterwards and said: "I wanted to ask a question but I worried what people would say when they heard my accent." Where does all this anger come from, she wanted to know?

I try to explain that people on this side of the pond – a limited group of people albeit – are generally better informed about the world. The Europeans live with the not at all distant memory of cities and towns devastated by war; they have experienced the outer limits of human insanity, and so prefer to move cautiously through the world; they fear the blunt power of America and its potential for being misused; they chafe at the assumptions of cultural, political, in fact you name it, superiority that ooze from the skin of so many of those around George Bush.

But that is only part of the truth, and my American friends know it. There is another group, unreconstructed children of the Sixties, who, along with their latter-day adherents, yearn for the tramp of marching feet and the crackle of simple truths through a megaphone. In that sense they are a mirror image of what they despise: an administration that peddles slogans and denies the complicated connections of our world.

Much has happened these past weeks to cause believers in a saner world order to grind their teeth. Much of the blame for this lies in the White House. Mr Bush has presented a plan on the Middle East that he and everybody around him knew had no chance of flying. It was less a plan than a very expensive parking ticket. The crisis in the region is being parked, or so Mr Bush believes. If that isn't the dumbest assumption I don't know what is.

And then there is the International Criminal Court that Mr Bush sees as the greatest threat to US sovereignty since the war of 1812 – Tony Blair has tried to assure him that the prosecution of American servicemen for war crimes is "inconceivable". Not quite, Prime Minister. It is unlikely but it is conceivable. That is hardly the point, however. If America thinks it's good to stick other people's soldiers on trial, then it should live up to the principle of justice for all. Did I mention trade tariffs or aid for the developing world? There isn't space now but you get the drift. There is a great deal wrong with US policy, but I can't help feeling that for Europeans, American-bashing is too often a convenient excuse to avoid looking at themselves.

We had a huge hand in making the world the mess it is now. The worst slaughters of the past 50 years have resulted not from American blundering or malice but in the backwash of empire. Remember, Vietnam began as a French disaster, the Middle East mess is at least partly a British creation. The United States is at heart a republic of the middle ground. Violent upheaval has shifted it away from that territory, but America will return, is returning, to the belief in questioning and free expression that lies at the core of its national identity. So let us reach for a little humility and a lot more intelligence when it comes to talking about America.

The writer is a BBC Special Correspondent

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