Published on Monday, September 17, 2001 in the Guardian of London
No Room for Dissent as Spirit of Flagwaving Sweeps the Nation
Casting doubt on need for unequivocal action seen as tantamount to treachery
by Matthew Engel in Washington
Two nights after the world changed, the Stonewall Bar in Greenwich Village was among those businesses firmly shut, with a message of sympathy in the window. Stonewall has its place in history, too: it was here that the drag queens suddenly lashed back at the New York police more than 30 years ago, an event of holy significance to the gay rights movement.
Nearby, two young men were walking slowly, arm in arm, when suddenly the silence of the streets was pierced by the roar of a convoy of cops heading south towards the disaster zone. The men unlocked their embrace, put their fists in the air - and cheered. Here was the culture receiving homage from the counter-culture, just one small illustration of the mood that has gripped the nation.
Extrapolating from a small sample, one would guess that half the houses in American suburbs must now have flags outside, mostly huge ones. There are even little plastic flags planted at the base of Stop signs like posies. (Fortunately, hardly anyone is likely to notice that some of these are marked "Made in China").
President Bush's job approval rating has soared to 84%, which is not unusual at any time of stress (even Gerald Ford's figures went sky-high after a now-forgotten incident in 1975 when Cambodia seized a US merchant ship, the Mayaguez). And one news channel, Fox, has switched its on-screen slogan to "America United".
The country is not just united in sadness. Talking to ordinary Americans, one is struck by the touching faith they now have in their institutions. Criticism of this most devastating of all intelligence failures has been muted; there seems a widespread assumption that the Arabs who have been rounded up since Tuesday must all be guilty. And there is unity in vengefulness, too. According to a New York Times-CBS poll yesterday, only 6% now oppose military action and a substantial majority would support war "even if many thousands of innocent civilians are killed". That support is especially strong among those too young to remember the second world war, Korea or Vietnam. It might be interesting to re-pose that question using the phrase "many thousands more innocent American civilians" but at the moment even that might not produce much pause for thought.
Opposing voices have been muted and marginalized. There were peace protesters on the streets of New York at the weekend, but the numbers seem to have been tiny. There has been little focus on Barbara Lee, the California congresswoman who cast the only vote on Friday night against giving the president carte blanche to retaliate. Mary McGrory, a long-time dissident, reported in yesterday's Washington Post that journalists who have asked skeptical questions have been "inundated with furious calls calling them a disgrace to their profession and even traitors".
Having originally accused Mr Bush of flunking his test, she herself now felt obliged to pay tribute to the president, saying that if he lacked eloquence on Tuesday, he "more than made up for it" at the memorial service.
The only mainstream columnist consistently swimming against the tide seems to be Jon Carroll, far from the action on the San Francisco Chronicle: "Children were born September 11, tomatoes ripened, the tide came in. For the vast majority of people, everything real and basic in their lives stayed the same if we use our rage instead of our wisdom, we'll be just another dictatorship." Reading everyone else, one is obliged to wonder further what is it that America is planning to defend. Pluralism?
Even in the face of this unprecedented provocation, such an event in Britain would not be immune from noises from the awkward squad, not least from this newspaper. In America, it is much harder for dissent to make such a breakthrough, for various reasons.
The first is constitutional. Because President Bush is head of state as well as the political leader, his response to a crisis - even his scuttle to Nebraska - is much harder to criticize. Like the flag, he becomes the embodiment of the nation's resolve. He has to be, since removing him is so close to impossible. There is also a political dimension. Party ties are weaker; there is far more expectation than in Britain that the opposition will cooperate with the administration; and politicians are far more likely to be personally vulnerable at the next election if they fail to play the game.
Thirdly, the media is less diverse. The CNN-isation of news reporting means there has been constant coverage over the past six days (some of it even accurate) and endless instant analysis, both on the screen and in print. But there has been little actual discussion, and, flicking through the channels yesterday, there was no obvious sign that the weekend was offering its customary opportunity for reflection and second thoughts. The greatest difference of all, though, is visceral. Through instinct, history and its place in the world, this is a far more direct kind of country than Britain. People believe in plain speaking even in normal times. And now the US is not merely grief-stricken, it is insulted. Tuesday's events were not merely vile acts of terrorism, they were direct attacks on the country's sense of itself. The military response has to restore the nation's sense of self-worth.
Senator John McCain, Bush's opponent for the Republican nomination last year, yesterday urged the president: "Do not foreclose any option." But options were ruled out right from the start. Inaction is out of the question, of course.
Some strategists are clearly aware of the dangers of combating not a nation state but a ruthless, hidden, widely dispersed and little known enemy whose soldiers (far from being "cowardly", as the president maintained) are not afraid to die for their beliefs. That awareness has not spread to the public.
The question no one in America has yet dared ask, except rhetorically, is "Why?" Unless the country's rulers try to get some understanding of the answer to that, the danger to all humanity is going to be terrifying.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001