United Around the Goal of Safety from Sea to Shining Sea
Published on Thursday, December 27, 2001 in the Guardian of London
United Around the Goal of Safety from Sea to Shining Sea
by Hugo Young
I 've been coming to the United States for many years, and thought I knew it. I studied here, reported here, and have kept the fruit of those connections. I married an American, which surely took me closer to this place, and even more affectionately into its heart. So I possessed most of the materials necessary to read America. Yet it turns out I did not know it. This may be for a simple reason. Until 9/11 and the Afghan war, perhaps America did not fully know itself.

What's most striking to a frequent visitor, holed up for a white Christmas in Vermont, is not that America has changed. Everything about the place may remain much as you suspected. But it is all more so. Each virtue and each vice, if vices they can be called, declares itself without the ambiguities of before. I dare to generalize from a small corner. But the shock of this war, I'm guessing, has forced America, all across the continent, to think about itself more urgently: to show itself: to say without complication what it is.

Americans always were considerate. They're now super-caring for friends and neighbors. Wherever they lived, they shared the attack for which history had left them totally unprepared. Three months later, not one iota of the memory has been stoically sloughed off. The shock reached the depths of the national psyche, and continues to reverberate there. The people still blunder about, unsure why it happened. Their response is to care and share more tenderly, more generously even than they used to.

Americans always were self-confident. The events of 9/11 summon them to greater displays than ever of this singular faculty. There's no whining, no trace of self-pity. Self-sufficiency is second nature. American certainties, so maddening to Osama bin Laden, are redoubled. All that three months have done, after the due period of solemnity, is to liberate the humorous dimension, allowing Garrison Keilor, the great radio raconteur, to make innumerable funny jihad jokes, which show that Islam has been de-listed from the scope of political correctness.

Americans always were patriotic. Flags hung in many yards on the dirt roads throughout the 10 peaceful years I've been coming here. But now patriotism is a far more intense experience. Vermont sends to Washington the only congressman who calls himself a socialist, and has more than the usual quota of plain-speaking residents who retain a low regard for President George Bush. But their patriotic response to 9/11 is unquestioning. This is a locality with no tourists, and very local local papers. Yet it has discovered the world. When Hamid Karzai was sworn in as head of the interim council to govern Afghanistan, it made the lead in the Valley News, White River Junction, which also had a down-page item on Yasser Arafat's pledge to pay a Christmas Eve visit to Bethlehem.

But I don't take this as evidence of a new internationalism reaching into the obscurest by-ways of America. It shows, though, that when the patria is under threat, Americans can shed their indifference to the world the threat is coming from. In another part of the polity, Washington as much as Vermont, they lose their angst about America's role. America's role is to protect America against all-comers. That's what patriotism means, and it's nothing to be ashamed of. It is all remarkably simple, the more so for never having been made so forcibly clear before.

Americans, however, as well as being patriots, were also always constitutionalists. And here the change is marked. Even my liberal Vermont acquaintances have only modest dislike for the military tribunals and other weapons against due process that Bush has assembled. They're not rising up against them. Aware of their sensitivities, the government cites Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt as precedents to show that great men are allowed to abolish habeas corpus and free speech when the Republic is threatened. It seems to be enough, in this hour of crisis when Americans see themselves facing a danger their ancestors did not experience.

I don't say that politics has ceased, in this new America. There are familiar arguments about the budget. There is a left and a right, just as there is in Europe, and they argue about roughly similar things, namely the size of the state and the level of taxation and the finer ideological points concerning how best to stimulate a flagging economy. There are big elections in 2002, and each side is maneuvering for position in the great game of modern politics, which is less about claiming credit for success than disclaiming the blame for damage wreaked by forces beyond politicians' control.

But in the great abroad, politics virtually has ceased. Over that terrain, America has become easy to lead. Alarmingly so. Even Vermonters who detest Bush are prepared to put their trust in him, because the situation seems to offer them no other course. He vows to get the job done, that archetypal American phrase; and it is clearer than it has ever been, at least since 1945, exactly what the job is.

They talk jestingly about seeing us next year, "as long as we haven't been blown to pieces". The implication is that Armageddon could come from either side. But fate, they seem to think, has taken over. America must do what America must do, which is to extinguish al-Qaida from the face of the earth. American idealism, that fickle jade of post-war diplomacy, at last has a purpose everyone can agree on, the saving of America itself. It is not clear what this will mean for the world.

But it's clearer than it has been since Jefferson what the world means for America: safety from sea to shining sea, and maybe not beyond.

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001