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America Caught in a No-Win Situation
Published on Sunday, September 23, 2001 in the Sunday Herald (Scotland)
America Caught in a No-Win Situation
Rich, all-powerful, manipulating from afar ... the US can't avoid being held up as something to hate. But how do you explain this to a grieving nation
by Ian Bell
START at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Stand where Martin Luther King stood when he told the world that he had a dream. You are gazing over the silver rectangle of the Reflecting Pool towards the heart of a city self-consciously conceived as an imperial capital, by a people given to thinking of themselves as new, republican Romans.

Beyond the expanse of the pool there is the obelisk of the Washington Monument and beyond that the Capitol. To your left, tucked behind trees and Constitution Avenue, the White House glitters. To your right lie departments of state, museums and galleries. In the parklands of the Mall and West Potomac Park around you, meanwhile, there are the memorials.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt is caped and seated within precisely the sort of colossal structure he didn't want. Down by the Tidal Basin a white dome protects a 20-foot high Jefferson. Back on the Mall veterans of the Korean War are remembered with a flag, 19 stainless-steel GIs and an etched wall that remarks 'Freedom Is Not Free'.

Cross the grass northwards and you find the thought echoed in the glittering black expanse of the Vietnam memorial, a thing of utter simplicity. Just two walls, just names cut into the granite. But there are 58,000 names here, and each is treated with utter reverence. People take rubbings from the stone; they caress the inscriptions, photograph them, raise children shoulder-high to kiss what remains of an uncle or a grandfather. You walk here, if you have any sense, in utter silence.

Back at the foot of Lincoln's temple, after all, there is a wooden kiosk decorated with flags beneath a sign announcing this crudest of memorials as The Last Firebase, 'Keeping Vigil Until They All Come Home.' Here middle-aged men in fatigues sell cheap militaria, regimental emblems and patriotic souvenirs. Their purpose is to preserve the memory of the MIAs, those deemed 'missing in action' in Vietnam. The men in fatigues do a good trade.

All this is prelude, somehow, to Lincoln himself, seated huge and stern in the gloom of his chamber. This is the place to which Jimmy Stewart's Mr Smith came when he needed to replenish his faith in America. This is a shrine in every sense, and the common people who climb the long staircase to reach it know as much. This is America's sense of itself, the symbol of its self-belief. This is where they mouth the words scrolling along the wall to the left of the door, the brief remarks made at Gettysburg about 'a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal'.

America isn't new anymore. Its war memorials neglect the fact that not all of those engulfed in the Vietnam war were allowed liberty. They do not mention that MacArthur saw the Korean war as the basis for a lunatic scheme to invade China, preferably by means of nuclear weapons. There is no acknowledgment, equally, that Nixon and Kissinger indulged in war crimes in south-east Asia. Amid Washington's monuments there is no sign of the truth that became bloodily obvious when the World Trade Center's towers foundered in two awesome gouts of rubble and dust: there are many people on the planet who hate America.

Americans do not understand this. They accept the fact, for it is now undeniable, but they do not comprehend it. They are a religious, intensely patriotic people. For them their country is, in Ronald Reagan's words, 'the last best hope for mankind', the land of the free. In times of crisis they unite around its ideals in a manner long-lost in Europe. How could any of that be hated?

The question is not being asked. The motive behind the massacres in Manhattan and Washington -- the 'Why?' heard across America -- is not being sought. The American media have made few inquiries. George Bush and the other politicians say nothing about it. Even in Britain it is held to be almost unpatriotic to attempt to advance two apparently contradictory statements, to say that nothing could have justified those psychotic assaults, yet ask what it is about America that could generate such malevolence. To ask, especially in the United States, is to insult the dead.

I think we need an answer, now more than ever. The myths-in-marble of Washington speak of a touching faith but, like all myths, do not embrace every reality. All those deaths on September 11, all those spreading ripples of grief, deserve some sort of explanation. Repugnant as it must sound, there are swathes of the planet in which the evils done that day seem like a reaction, albeit deranged and nihilistic, to America's past actions. Some sophists would even claim that the US somehow created its own assailants. Misery and despair, made in the USA, says the argument, make men mad.

We need not pause over that. Moral relativism generates a circular logic to justify any deed. It remains the fact, nevertheless, that there is nothing new in anti- Americanism, that it manifests itself in myriad ways, that it creates paradoxes -- American movies are adored; America's 'cultural imperialism' is deplored -- and that no country is quite immune.

No empire has ever been loved, and America is an empire. No empire has ever been entirely benign, and America has been as self-interested as any great power. It destroyed both fascism and Soviet Communism in the last century but it dropped nuclear bombs on Japan. It exported the idea of liberty across the planet, to Hungary, to Tiananmen Square and beyond, but it sponsored the destruction of democracies in Chile and Guatemala, made a cauldron of the Middle East and manipulated governments everywhere.

America has not sought territory since the days of Teddy Roosevelt. Instead, it has gradually extended its grip over the economy of the world, obliging every nation to adhere to its chosen system, and underwriting its choices with military power. 'The business of America,' said Herbert Hoover, obedient to his masters, 'is business.' So the US today accounts for 22% of the world's gross domestic product and 36% of 'defense' spending.

Nevertheless, and ironic as it sounds after September 11, America has made much of the world peaceful and prosperous. That in itself explains some of the animus: there is nobody else left to hate, no power great enough to provide an explanation. So successful has America been, so complete has its dominance become, that its actions are interpreted as a reason for any calamity. In their hatred the enemies of the US allow no excuse: either it caused some horror -- the destruction of Cambodia, say -- or it failed to prevent horror -- African famines, conflict in the Middle East, the Balkans catastrophe -- when it had the power to do so.

Geo-politics, so called, is only part of the answer. Much of Europe reacts badly to America's assumption that its values can be applied universally. The hyperbolic French socialist who called Disneyland Paris a 'cultural Chernobyl' was not entirely a lone voice. The environmental protesters who see GM foods being forced on unwilling populations are not isolated dissidents. Anyone who noticed the rigging of George Bush's election, his contempt for the Kyoto protocols, or his unflagging desire to impose his missile shield has felt the anti-American impulse stir.

Sometimes it is a matter of simply stating a fact: we are not all Americans. Sometimes it is a case of responding to real injustice: American actions in the Middle East have been truly malign. But sometimes opposition to America arises from a near-subconscious desire to find easy answers: if the greatest power on the planet is not responsible for our woes, who is? People in Gap shirts listening to Madonna while they queue for the new Tom Cruise picture do not notice the contradictions. Why, then, should understanding penetrate the vicious theology of an Osama bin Laden?

The crowds at the Lincoln Memorial understand none of this. It makes no sense to the fire-fighters at ground zero. Out in the heartlands, where they pray devoutly and rage incessantly, there is no reason to it. A majority of the citizens of the United States do not hold passports. The world beyond their borders means nothing to them. They know little of what is done in their name and knew nothing, until September 11, of what America has come to mean for too many people. And they still do not want to know. Somehow that knowledge would bring final destruction to the monuments and shrines.

©2001 smg sunday newspapers ltd.


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