Jonathan Raban: The secret state of America

George Bush is using the 'war against terrorism' to justify frightening change

I woke up on Thursday morning to the voice of Richard Perle, talking on National Public Radio about how to "win" the "War on Terror". Among a string of alarming proposals was his suggestion that Americans "associated with" "terrorist organisations" should be stripped of their citizenship so as to liberate them from any inconvenient rights they might have to the protection of US law. My quotation marks are, I'm afraid, a sign of the times. One needs to handle the language now with a pair of tongs, gingerly picking up each official phrase as if it were a potential explosive device. Welcome to America under the Patriot Act, where dozens of formerly innocent words are suspect, and none more so than the word "security".

As a visitor to the US, you won't much enjoy being fingerprinted, photographed and asked to supply a "biometric" passport; nor will you relish being shooed away from the toilet on the plane because where two or three are gathered together they might constitute a terrorist cell. But these measures are out in the open, and if you can read about them in newspapers they are by definition the public window-dressing that the Department of Homeland Security wants you to see. It's the covert that truly threatens us, and America, once famous for the openness of its government, has under the Bush administration become the most secretive state in the history of modern peacetime democracy.

But we are, of course, "at war", and have been so since the President declared one in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. (The al-Qa'ida attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon might have been treated as a massive criminal act, and prosecuted accordingly; it was George Bush's choice to label them as warfare.) Certainly the menace of terrorism is real - and has intensified since the invasion of Iraq and the consequent inflammation of Islamist rage against the US. There's every reason to assume that an American - or a British - city will be the target of militant Islamists armed with a dirty bomb, or a supply of ricin or anthrax, or in possession of an airliner heavily laden with explosive aviation fuel, or ... we have no idea of the timing or the method, which leaves us very effectively terrorised.

So the secrecy is justified. The government knows more than we do. What we don't know is for our own good. Leave it to the administration. Trust Daddy. Close to half of the voting-age population in America appears to subscribe to that view, while the other half fears that democracy itself is being fatally undermined by the administration's unseemly eagerness to exploit every available political possibility of this war (which isn't quite a war) on terror (which, as an abstract noun, is unlike any enemy ever caught in the sights of a sniper's rifle).

Living in Seattle, I've seen and felt the American climate alter steadily and for the worse over the last 28 months. Degree by degree, it's getting colder. Old Glory is hoisted proudly on the flagpoles of pro-Bush houses and condos, while paranoia and conspiracy theories fly ever higher in the flagless ones. "Security" is a partisan issue, as when, just before Christmas, Tom Ridge, the head of Homeland Security, announced that he'd upped the level of alert from yellow to orange and that the threat of terrorist attack on the mainland United States was "greater now than at any point since September 11, 2001".

Obviously Ridge couldn't tell us how he knew this - that would be in breach of security. Yet his department did let drop that "chatter" had been heard - and there's another word whose innocence is for ever gone. It was for "chatter" that warplanes buzzed American cities over Christmas, Coast Guard gunboats stood on watch in harbours, flights from abroad (such as BA223) were cancelled or escorted into American airspace by more warplanes, and plainclothes operatives roamed the streets with portable radiation detectors, looking for traces of sodium chloride in the Yuletide air. The vast and cumbersome apparatus of security was taken out of the secret closet and given some no doubt useful exercise.

Only paranoid conspiracy theorists, or liberal Democrats, would go so far as to insinuate that an administration which has misled the public, or been plain wrong, on so much else - on the "link" between Saddam Hussein and al-Qa'ida, on weapons of mass destruction, on the cost of war, on how toppling Saddam would instantly liberate the infectious germ of democracy in the Middle East - could go so far as to exaggerate, let alone invent, the "chatter" that unleashed the jet fighters and the gunboats. Tom Ridge is an honourable man. His soberly cheerful potato face is trustworthiness personified. We all believe him.

Which is what you have to do if you live in a security state. The ordinary citizen is infantilised. Government knows best and its well-brought-up children don't question the parental decisions that are made on their behalf. This compact works (Churchill made it work in Britain during the Second World War) so long as the children don't have reason to believe that their parents are liars, or motivated by mere cupidity - in which case, as in America now, there is a problem. Most of the 46 per cent of polled Americans who last week said that they would vote for Howard Dean, in a hypothetical Bush-Dean election in November, believe that the Bush administration has lied its way from Washington to Baghdad and back again, and is out to feather its own nest, Enron- and Halliburton-style. This recalcitrant 46 per cent is capable of doubting almost anything asserted by the administration, yet it has no option but to take Tom Ridge and his "chatter" on trust, crossing its fingers that Ridge is as honest as his homely face.

For even the most surly Bush-haters find their doubts checked by the raw fact of 9/11, and Americans have grown adept at fashioning their own local versions of catastrophe. Seattle's container port is wedged in a corner of Elliott Bay, right beside the skyscraping (literally so, given our habitual low overcast sky) business district and the football and baseball stadiums. A dirty bomb in a container aboard a ship from Indonesia is the usual scenario. Last May an exercise named TOPOFF 2 put the scenario into rehearsal: actors played the dead and wounded and the emergency services played themselves, with real smoke and flames, overturned buses, and fallen brick and masonry. Drills like this, ever-changing colour-coded alerts, surveillance cameras, wire-taps, email-hacking, and all the rest of the security paraphernalia keep us reminded, day by day, of the urgent necessity for drills like this, ever-changing colour-coded alerts, etc, etc, just as reasons for security must be kept secret because disclosing them would jeopardise security. The whole business is wonderfully, invulnerably, circular.

Militant Islamism is no phantom, and there's no shortage of young men who will readily give their lives to emulate Mohammad Atta and inflict a humiliating injury on the hated United States. So we're obliged to believe what we're told - or rather not told - by the Department of Homeland Security. American Civil Liberties Union types and notorious lefties such as Al Gore still persist in querying the terms of the Patriot Act, but only the most rabidly cynical fear that an unprincipled administration, faced with an election, with its leader sliding downward in the polls, could possibly manipulate the outcome by raising the alert to red, filling the skies with fighter planes and the streets with Humvees, to send the citizenry to the polls in a state of suitably chastened insecurity. That couldn't happen in America.

Jonathan Raban's latest book, 'Waxwings', is published by Picador

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