23 Aug 2010

A view from the beach

The gaping sore that is 9/11 in the American psyche remains unhealed.

We who covered the co-ordinated attacks on the Twin Towers in New York, and the Pentagon in Washington underestimated how deep, how searing, and how long lasting this event would prove to be.

Today this secular nation, whose refusal to either favour or move against any religion is enshrined in the constitution, is now at war with itself over whether a mosque and Islamic cultural centre should be built some two blocs away from Ground Zero.

Last week the Pew polling organisation in the United States revealed that the number of Americans who now believe Barack Obama to be a Muslim has risen from 11 per cent last year to 18 per cent today.

Add to all this, mass unemployment on a scale not seen in America since the 1930s and one is tempted to understand how this extraordinary entity that is America is seen by many to be talking itself into a double dip financial crisis.

To have been on the beach in America these past weeks, absorbing the New York Times and a lot of political back chatter, is to have seen elements of a society riven with a kind of collective nervous breakdown.

The end of the war in Iraq (is it really?); the disputed possibility of troop reductions in Afghanistan, emphasise how little the remedial military response to 9/11 has done to calm the nerves at home.

And yet when, last week, China finally overtook Japan to become the world’s second largest economy, to hear it in America, anyone would think the US would itself be thus overwhelmed. It took sage economists to point out that the US economy is still fourteen times that of China.

What America really seems to miss is what many have come round to praising Britain for – a coalition government. Many thought Obama might be it. Alas the limits of power and perhaps his own inexperience have rendered a period of some of the most partisan division in US modern political history.

Every time I met a politically connected or motivated American on the beach, the question was the same – coalition, how does it work, what does it take, and what does it say of Cameron and Clegg?

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