Americans are of course used to catastrophes. Only this summer there was Pearl Harbor, the movie. Not to mention Independence Day. Somehow even so shocking a spectacle as the destruction of the World Trade Centre had something familiar about it. Was it in Die Hard that we saw it? Or was it Godzilla? Americans are of course not used to real catastrophes, as opposed to the sort that Bruce Willis is able to avert at the 11th hour. Even Pearl Harbor, where 2,395 Americans died in 1941, is rather a long way from the United States proper.
Of course, the 1995 Oklahoma bombing gave Americans a foretaste of what war against civilians is like. But not until this week had an American city come so close to experiencing an aerial bombardment comparable in its destructiveness with those of the Second World War. So this was not Pearl Harbor III, but an American Blitz.
Yet this was a Blitz with a difference, for Londoners at least had the consolation in the 1940s of knowing exactly who the enemy was. Perhaps the true significance of this week's attacks, then, is that they mark America's belated arrival in the age of terrorism.
The implications go far beyond the long overdue tightening of security on American domestic flights, however. It is the American psyche that these horrors will change forever. And if one were feeling callous, one might add: not before time. I have spent a good deal of time in the US in the past couple of years; indeed, I was due to fly to New York on Wednesday morning for a series of lectures (I even had a room booked between the World Trade Centre and Wall Street). The last time I was there, it really hit me – the way Americans subconsciously feel themselves to be in a planet of their own. It is, or rather it was, a strangely seductive planet, part Planet Hollywood, part Spacestation Nasdaq.
The longer I spent there – chomping tuna steaks, slurping Zinfandel, watching baseball and tracking tech stocks – the further away the rest of Planet Earth seemed to be. To many Americans, Europe might as well be on the moon, Asia on Mars and Africa on the dark side of Neptune. Only Mexico feels near, and that's only because half the Mexicans seem to have moved to the US.
That illusion of separateness is now over. The only question is whether George W Bush will draw the right conclusions for US foreign and defence policy. Unfortunately, he may not.
It is widely believed by many US policy wonks that Bill Clinton was too much of an interventionist in foreign trouble spots. From Sarajevo to Somalia, people have bad memories of GIs under fire in places disconcertingly remote from Planet Hollywood. (The truth about Clinton, however, was that his interventions were generally too short and underpowered to be effective: for Clinton, the exit strategy and the approval ratings were alpha and omega.)
There will be those who will argue strongly against precipitate retaliatory action by the US. They will warn against a repeat of Bill Clinton's bombing of Khartoum after the attacks by Osama bin Laden on US embassies in East Africa in 1998. The "don't be hasty" school would rather take the Lockerbie approach – the long haul to justice.
This view could not be more wrong. On the contrary, this is the moment – and it will not last long – when the US can and should take decisive military action against those rogue regimes which have for too long harboured and financed terrorism. Top of the hit list must be Saddam Hussein, closely followed by the Taliban government in Afghanistan. I should be sorry if Colonel Gaddafi were to escape unscathed. Whether or not one or all of them gave their backing to this particular attack does not especially matter. They are dangerous – not least to the people of the countries they despotically rule.
Is this realistic? Sure. The US is, after all, the world hegemony. Whether Americans like it or not, they are an imperial power – and hated as such by many impoverished and aggrieved people around the world. Well, they may as well be hung for sheep as for lambs. They may as well act like an imperial power.
Americans are, of course, used to military action. Unfortunately, thanks to another cinema genre – the anti-Vietnam movie – they exaggerate its difficulty and cost. There is in fact no state in the world capable of resisting the full might of the US armed forces today, if Americans have the will to exert that might.
So the next 48 hours will reveal the future role of the United States on this planet it turns out to share with the rest of us. The choice is between moving swiftly – and just plain going to the movies. If America chooses the latter, the terrorists will be able to choose their next target with impunity.
The writer is professor of political and financial history at Oxford UniversityReuse content