America - Andrew Stephen thinks Americans are too hysterical

A bus driver went off his route to avoid traffic and joked that he was taking the passengers to the

I have a theory that, every so often, this country goes collectively mad. In the 20th century we saw it in, for example, prohibition - and then in the McCarthyite lunacies of the 1950s. Now, after the atrocities of 11 September 2001, the whole attitude of the country has changed. Take the case of a Greyhound bus driver headed to New York City from Philadelphia the other day. He got caught in heavy traffic, and left the main highways to try to find a quick way through. When passengers asked what he was doing, he replied: "I'm taking you to the Taliban." They got on their mobiles and soon the bus was surrounded - by 19 police cars. "It wasn't terrorism, not at all," said the local county prosecutor afterwards. "It was just a foolish remark made at a bad time." Quite. I sometimes wonder whether there is some gene within Americans that propels them towards hysteria. Would such a reaction have occurred if a bus driver had gone off his route in, say, Yorkshire?

There are more sinister manifestations of this hysteria. I have recorded here how non-US citizens have no rights of habeas corpus under the military tribunals, but now US citizens can just as easily be locked up indefinitely with no trial and no access to a lawyer. Admiral John Poindexter, a convicted liar before Congress, has resurfaced to take charge of the "Total Information Awareness" project - a system that will basically spy on Americans' domestic activities, ranging from credit card purchases to car rentals. What is remarkable is that there is so little outcry that, in the land of the free and home of the brave, US citizens can now be locked up without trial - and are. Americans are surrendering rights that it took two centuries to build.

The local story that has gripped Washington over the holidays has been that of Trent Lott, the toupee-wearing former head of the Republican Senate known as "Vacant Lott". It was at the 100th birthday party for Senator Strom Thurmond that Lott said, of Thurmond's 1948 run for the presidency on a 100 per cent segregationist ticket: "And if the rest of the country had followed our lead [of Mississippi], we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years, either." It took several days for Lott's comments to sink in, but remarkably, sympathy came from the left rather than the right; the latter, in its furious bid for black votes and those of soccer moms, was enraged, while the left was apt to put it all down to being sympathetic remarks at an old man's birthday party. The new leader of the Republicans is Senator Bill Frist, who holds a remarkable record: he is the first doctor in the Senate since 1928.

Executions are on a downward trend in the US, ever since DNA was used to prove the innocence of men about to be put under the executioner's needle. Texas executed only 33 people in 2002, against 40 in 2000. In Oklahoma, executions fell from 18 to seven in 2002, in Missouri from seven to six, and in North Carolina from five to three. Florida had just three. Overall, capital punishment was at the lowest level since 1993. Which prompts the thought: before DNA testing, how many innocent people were sent to the executioner's chamber?

Who are the most popular people in America in 2003? Ruin the nation's economy, plunge the world into chaos - and the winner is, naturally, George W Bush, by a mile. He is the most admired man by a staggering 28 per cent - followed by Jimmy Carter at 9 per cent. Colin Powell is at 4 per cent, followed by Pope John Paul at 3 per cent and Bill Clinton, also at 3 per cent. Billy Graham is next, followed by Nelson Mandela at 1 per cent.

Of the most admired women, Hillary Clinton tops the charts at 7 per cent, followed by Oprah Winfrey. Laura Bush comes third, followed by Barbara Bush. And the fifth most admired woman in the US? Baroness Thatcher, with 3 per cent. Jennifer Lopez was next.

I made a rare foray to the pictures at the weekend, and was struck by the number of trailers featuring mayhem and violence. This dates back to a visit to Hollywood last winter by Karl Rove, George W Bush's political wizard; he pressed Hollywood executives to screen more "patriotic" films. We now see the results, with trailer after trailer showing violent movies on patriotic themes. Stand by for films like We Were Soldiers; strangely, this is at the very time when Democrats have adopted the refreshing, if risky, strategy of taking on the administration over its "war" against al-Qaeda. ("It's time for us, without regard to party, to say what every American knows: Washington is not doing enough to make America safe" - Senator John Edwards, a presidential hopeful for 2004.) Yes, this is a country going through a bizarre phase, with wartime movies encouraging young men to feel patriotically aggressive while half the politicians take the opposite tack. Happy New Year.

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