I received the other day one of those emails which is obviously doing the rounds. Assuming the subject matter is not a hoax, which as far as I can make out it isn’t, this email is a sort of populist fact sheet about the USS New York, a new amphibious assault ship built for the US Navy. And this warship, says the email, is built with ‘24,000 tons of scrap steel from the World Trade Center’. (Actually, research on official sites quotes the amount of steel as 24 tons, not 24,000). It has therefore become a powerful and emotional symbol of the resolve of Americans to rise, phoenix-like, from the ashes. The steel foundry manager is quoted as saying, ‘They knocked us down. They can’t keep us down. We’re going to be back.’
It’s sad, and bodes ill for the world that as a result of that dreadful day back in 2001 America did not learn humility. For the first time in the history of that still young country, fighters from foreign lands broke in and wreaked havoc, destroying one of the prime symbols of their commercial and political might, killing three thousand people, turning wives and husbands into widows and widowers, orphaning hundreds of children. So America got to learn, in the cruellest possible way on its home turf, the effects of war on people and their lives.
The world turned to them in sympathy. Almost at a stroke, the well of distrust which had, for so many years, characterized the response of peoples in so many parts of the world to America and Americans, was wiped out. Americans were suddenly seen as no more or less than ordinary human beings who shared the same loves and the same pain as the rest of us. It was like America had, at long last, joined the rest of us on this spinning globe and hearts everywhere went out to them.
At that point and thereafter, the country could have become a great moral leader – the world is in desperate need of one. Anything would have been possible. Had Americans asked themselves in all seriousness and in all humility, ‘have we had any part in this dreadful event and in the creation of the attitudes of mind that acted it out?’ they would have had to answer in the affirmative. Then we might have seen a move by that nation to turn itself into a most potent force for peace around the world. Osama Bin Laden and his disciples would be seen as having scored a spectacular own goal.
But – then came Bush, Cheney et al, aided and abetted by Tony Blair. They handed Bin Laden the victory. Right wing America won the day. Civil liberties were curtailed – in the UK as well as the US. Civilians were blown apart and maimed in the UK and Spain as they went about their everyday business. The whole world is today shadowed by a sort of creeping nervousness. And on top of the three thousand killed in 9/11, there were thereafter added at least another 100,000 – and probably very many more – Iraqis, along with hundreds of US and UK servicemen. The worldwide goodwill was squandered and America resumed its place as one of the most distrusted nations on earth.
And now we have the USS New York. It seems to me an obscenity that an event which in itself and in its wake brought so many thousands of deaths and so much untold, often lifelong misery for ordinary people in so many parts of the world should be commemorated with – a warship! And a warship built from the embers – as it were – of such a sorely and profoundly missed opportunity. Almost as much a commemoration of failure as of anything else. A warship whose ultimate purpose, like that of all warships when push comes to shove, is to create more deaths, grief and pain. The vessel, we are told, will carry a crew of 360 sailors and 700 combat-ready Marines to be delivered ashore by helicopters and assault craft. And its motto? – “Never forget.” God help us all.
Knowing America reasonably well as I do, I also know that there are millions of people in that country who abhor as much as anybody, and probably more than most, America’s drift back to the right. I just hope those people find a powerful, trustworthy and lasting voice before much longer. America has been, in its time, a force for many good things. And to answer my own question at the top – no, I don’t think this is the real America. I further don’t think it’s an America that can last much longer. Things like this are symptomatic of its passing. There will be further sporadic outbursts, some serious maybe, for some time to come. But the days of ‘Shock and awe America’ and ‘Mission accomplished America’ are, I’m sure and I hope, numbered.