At first glance, life goes on as usual. Broadway shows are sold out, as expensive and as slick as ever, with scarcely any sign of any anti-terrorist security. The Weather Channel, with wry good humor, hammers out its forecasts of yet more snow and storms. The American suburbs sprawl across what was, until recently, virgin farmland; houses and plots are garlanded with extraordinarily kitsch lights, Nativity scenes and imitation reindeer. It's the United States 2003.
But it's not the same. A remarkable number of houses have no Christmas lights. The McDonalds in deserted downtown Philadelphia next to the City Hall, now fortified against potential terrorist attacks, had only one woman at the counter. It had no decaf coffee or shakes, much to the dismay of its few, down-at-heel, mainly black, customers, whose desultory eating was vivid testimony to the company's first-ever quarterly loss.
The queue to see Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence was signed, snaked around the block, meaning a 45-minute wait. It was a potential terrorist target, it was explained, and every tourist had to be treated as a potential member of al- Qaeda.
The attack on the World Trade Center has got under America's skin. A close American friend, puzzling with me why poll returns continue to show how the vast majority of Americans believe in both the devil and personal angels while the rest of the West has either become secular or more subtle in its face, argues that it is a psychological guarantee against a level of insecurity that otherwise would be insupportable. Most Americans are a pay check away from a disastrous drop in their standard of living and the erosion of what was never a very robust safety net over the last 20 years has heightened that sense of being at risk.
Even while I have been in the United States, a Congressional failure to continue the temporary extension of social security from 13 to 26 weeks has, almost casually, placed 750,000 unemployed Americans close to destitution. It has been little reported in the mainstream media, but on the streets people know the implications.
Now there is terrorism to worry about, too. There is a tendency in Europe, with our long experience of the IRA, the Red Brigades, ETA and the rest, to want Americans to become less hysterical about the risk. After all, the chances of any individual suffering a terrorist incident are much less, say, than being involved in a car accident; you just have to get on with life, as we have had to do in Europe for many years. Yet, standing before Ground Zero's grim 20 acres, you can't fail both to be moved - and stunned - by the void.
The dust alone is still damaging the health of thousands of New Yorkers in the vicinity. The manner of the victims' commemoration is profoundly moving - you can only feel solidarity. It's hardly surprising that every American city, with its cluster of skyscrapers, considers itself as much a front-line target as New York.
Under a different administration and with a more balanced political discourse, 11 September could have been the moment for a national coming-together, a trigger for a re-engagement with America's fundamental problems at home and abroad, and a moment to find ways of addressing insecurity in all its dimensions. But, instead, there is George Bush and Karl Rove, his Machiavellian political adviser.
There is no political advantage to American conservatism in lowering risks, including, now, that of terrorism. Fearfulness rallies Americans to the incumbent, and is exploited well; it opens more rather than less conservative opportunities.
John Dilulio, a recently departed Bush administration official, has gone on record in Esquire magazine as saying that in the White House, policy-making is entirely driven by politics: 'What you've got is everything - and I mean everything - being run by the political arm.'
And that means giving the conservative coalition, from the Republican's corporate donors to the pro-life anti-abortion lobby, as much as possible of what it wants, even if the resulting policy is plainly self-interested or stupid. I still gape at the flagrancy with which organized corporate lobbyists determine policy.
Under Bush, many have simply moved from the lobby they ran to take up key positions to put in place the tax and regularity breaks for which they once lobbied. Deputy Interior Secretary Jay Steven Griles is a former lobbyist; so is the same department's solicitor, William Geary Myers III. It is as if key posts in the Home Office were occupied by lobbyists.
This month sees the thirtieth anniversary of the Roe versus Wade judgment, which, in effect, legalized abortion. It is a continuing affront to a resurgent conservatism determined to use its intellectual, cultural and political ascendancy to restrict and reduce abortions. It is determined to mark the anniversary with a statement of legislative intent. The argument that has been won elsewhere in the West is here still contested, and again the same technique is employed. Anti-abortion lobbyists are shamelessly appointed to key federal commissions, so, beneath, the radar of what is, in any case, an impoverished public debate, gradual social gains are reversed, preparing the way for legislation to set the seal on the process.
For all but the enormously rich, this is a tough and unforgiving society. This has been my first visit since researching my last book, The World We're In, and while the conservative dominance is even more marked, equally the cracks in the edifice are beginning to show. If only American liberals could develop a coherent narrative, along with a group of convincing political leaders to sell it, they would find a ready audience.
There is all the tinder for an anti-war movement over Iraq as powerful as that against the war in Vietnam. Distressed corporate America is considerable and growing; even in areas like criminal justice policy, popular opinion is wondering whether denying ex-prisoners access to social security and public housing forever - one of Clinton's so-called welfare 'reforms' - does anything more than create a permanent criminal class beyond the reach of society.
Now even the pro-gun-control documentary, Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine, has been a surprise box-office sensation. The country is definitely on the turn.
Which is why either being simplistically anti-American or, alternatively, an uncritical follower of a foreign policy that is about to be fiercely challenged within the United States equally makes no sense. Rather, the task is to hold America to account for the values it purports to stand for. America's real friends are those who will do just that.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003