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Fri, Sep 14, 2001 - Page 13 News List

Attack shatters the relaxed aura of the US

Washington and New York citizens reacted to the terrorist attacks calmly but its sheer size took civil defense officials by surprise

By Matthew Engel  /  The Guardian , Washington

Only history will relate, and even then haphazardly, what really happened at the heart of the US government on Tuesday as it faced its greatest crisis of all time. We may never know how President George W. Bush actually responded away from the TV cameras to a day of disaster that will rank in American infamy close to Dallas and Pearl Harbor, a day that may for a long time render the Hollywood catastrophe movie redundant.

Sustained by bewilderment and ignorance of the scale of the devastation the people of Washington, and apparently New York, reacted with impressive calm. But between the top and bottom of society there was evidence of panic-stricken decision making from officials who have simply no experience not merely of terrorism on this scale but of anything remotely like it.

It is hard for outsiders to grasp just how calm and structured day-to-day life is for most Americans. Our images come from TV and films, which by their make-up emphasize lawlessness. Our perceptions come from newspaper stories of occasional horrific and wacky murders.

Our own memories come from visiting tourist areas, which by their nature attract criminals. This tells us nothing about the work/family/car/TV/shopping mall existence of people, a way of life that has seemed wholly invincible.

In many respects this is a strikingly more relaxed society than Britain. At home, people are more likely to know their neighbors, leave their doors unlocked, tell the delivery men to dump the stuff on the porch. Obviously, that old-fashioned confidence primarily belongs to the white middle class. But even on the streets, closed circuit TV -- far from being the ubiquitous supposed boon of British cities -- is barely even a rumor.

Visitors who do nothing stupid are less likely to feel threatened on the streets of Washington than in the center of London. It is this background that has enabled the people -- and their politicians -- to shrug off scares of global warming and environmental meltdown. This is America. What can harm us?

Above all, there is no experience of terrorism. Except for the two major operations on the original World Trade Center attack in 1993 and the Oklahoma City bomb of 1995, this kind of attack has been confined mainly to "abroad," that strange and mystical place little experienced by most Americans, including their president. Even when Americans have been targeted, it has usually happened in faraway places with strange-sounding names such as Beirut or Dar-es-Salaam, reinforcing the popular instinct that this is the only safe and sensible country in the world, a place where the greatest terror is poison ivy at summer camp. It is an instinct that traditionally leads on to political isolationism.

In America you can still -- or you could until yesterday -- put a bag in a locker at a bus or railway station without anyone presuming that there might be a bomb inside and demanding the right to check.

This right disappeared from Britain and Europe in the early 1970s, when bombings and hijacking became a commonplace of our lives.

Airport inspections, though theoretically efficient, have become perfunctory and routine in a country where thousands and thousands of planes land uneventfully every day.

Countless opponents of the president's missile defense programme have pointed out the futility of spending billions of dollars trying to anticipate the direction of a nuclear attack when a carbomb, a suitcase, or a lone maniac can cause any amount of havoc. No one can have anticipated the real potential of a few hijacked planes; even so there will be widespread grim satisfaction of a kind among George Bush's opponents today. But it is necessary to understand the illusion of security that Americans had enjoyed which has made the fantasy of total safety so politically potent.

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