The day that nobody would take charge

Terror in America - In the hours after the hijackings, the Bush administration seemed to de

Perhaps it was the devilish cleverness of Tuesday's concerted attacks which so took America by surprise. A couple of miles across the river from me, palls of smoke rose all day from the wreckage left after American Airlines flight 77 sliced through the Pentagon; instead of the skies above being full of commercial planes and helicopters, the stillness was broken only by the occasional clattering military helicopter or F-16 thundering overhead. The birds, apparently surprised by unaccustomed freedom, were in full song; walk down leafy 31st Street and there, at its corner with M, you would see a US army armoured personnel carrier dramatically waiting for some unknown, unspecified enemy. America was at war - but it did not yet quite know why, or with whom.

But by the end of that first day, America had lost its innocence; its inner insouciance that its lands were inviolate from foreign attack gone for ever. More than 30,000 died in one day's battle in the civil war, and 2,400 were killed in the Pearl Harbor bombing in 1941. But that was all in faraway Hawaii, and half a century before America became the world's unchallenged superpower. Throughout Tuesday, there was a slow, steady moan of stunned surprise that gradually metamorphosed into roars of outrage and anger. Twelve hours after flights UA175 and AA11 were steered into the two 110-story World Trade Center buildings in Manhattan, the nation began to realise that thousands of Americans lay dead beneath rubble in New York and Washington, and that a) they were impotent to do anything about it, and b) the weapons of living people used so diabolically might just as well have been missiles launched from overseas.

Thus the impossible had happened. America had become like other countries Americans watched on the news. The 43rd president, facing his first real test after eight months in office, seemed like a rabbit caught in headlights, such was his fear and incomprehension over what had happened: some dusty cold war manual over what to do in a national emergency was brought out, and Bush was whisked on Air Force One (flanked by two close-escort F-15s and one F-16) from Sarasota, Florida (where he had been reading books to schoolchildren), to a US air force base in Shreveport, Louisiana, to an underground nuclear bunker command post at Offutt in Nebraska, before doing what he should have done immediately: head straight back to Washington to address the nation. Only then, after a day in which the Bush administration seemed to have deserted the country, did the people hear what they so desperately wanted to hear from their president: "Our military's powerful, and it's prepared." And the US, he said, "will make no distinction between the terrorists who commit these acts and those who harbour them".

In the meantime, the television stations had moved the country up several gears of hysteria as they always do; their job is to create a sense of threat, but this time they needed no manufactured ingredients. Weeping parents were summoned to bring frightened children home from school; one usually sane mother I know announced that as Washington clearly faced imminent nuclear attack, she would drive her family to Rehoboth Beach on the eastern seashore. A DC radio station announced that it had just seen a passenger plane roaring out on an unauthorised take-off at Washington's Reagan National Airport. And still the birds kept singing, less than a mile from the White House where the US military had been ordered to go on full-scale "Delta" alert.

What makes an attack of this kind so incomprehensible and unbearable to Americans is an unwavering belief that, in the words of Bush on Tuesday night, the country "was targeted because we're the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world". The US is a force only for good in the world; Americans simply can't make a connection between their country's Middle East policies, say, and ardent, even murderous, opposition to those policies in other parts of the world. Few here can grasp that suicide bombers genuinely believe in the rightness of a jihad, and are willing to martyr themselves to subvert America's burgeoning domination.

Thus - until last Tuesday - America was a place dreamily set apart, a mighty fortress of strength unsullied by the grubby realities other countries in the rest of the world have to face. Geographically, it was protected on either side by two of the worlds' great oceans; militarily, it was unchallengeable. And yet all that went by the board when four fuel-laden passenger planes were hijacked on Tuesday, and no number of trillion-dollar Star Wars policies would have made the slightest difference. Mighty America was foiled by a small number of determined martyrs, careless even to leave flight-training manuals in Arabic behind in Boston.

By Tuesday night the anger and the demand for bloodlust was palpable. A teenage boy visiting my home announced he was willing to go down to hunt and kill those behind the strikes; by Wednesday morning, polls showed that 80 per cent of the country was willing to go to war. But with whom? And at whom would those waiting $1m-a-time Cruise missiles be aimed? The country's media collectively decided that Osama Bin Laden was responsible, and Bush's declared willingness to pursue "those who harbour" the terrorists seemed to give the green light for US - and "allied" forces (we can bet our bottom dollar that Britain will play a symbolic role, magnified beyond all reality by the British media) - to pound the already wretchedly deprived people of Afghanistan.

Inside Washington power circles, the finger-pointing, too, had already begun. The unimpressive performance of the Bush administration was the first subject of whispers that were only sotto voce in the circumstances; not a single representative of the government appeared live before the people on television until the defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, materialised, more than nine hours after the first plane struck.

Bush made it known at least three times that he had been in consultation with Dick Cheney - as though he was the man in charge - but Cheney never appeared. Only the secretary of state, Colin Powell, stranded in Latin America, looked sufficiently unfazed and in control of himself to take charge. It took Karen Hughes, perhaps Bush's closest adviser, to appear before the cameras in the middle of the afternoon; compared with a president apparently taking orders from his manual-reading secret service men, she looked positively presidential. By contrast, meanwhile, Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Governor George Pataki were constantly willing to put their heads above the parapets and before the cameras amid the rubble of New York.

That initial stunned grief seemed almost palpably to deepen as the monstrousness of such deliberate violence sunk in, gradually giving way to anger and outrage; the next stage, and Bush's great test, will inevitably come when rampant aggression takes over. It will be days, if not weeks, before all the bodies are cleared and the funerals held - and, during that period, demands for Bush to take decisive action will only intensify. The problem for US intelligence is that it knows next to nothing about Osama Bin Laden's whereabouts; it once had the capacity to eavesdrop on his sophisticated network of communications, but has now totally lost that.

In the intelligence community, this failure in itself is already becoming a subject of furious (again, sotte voce) finger-pointing. Bin Laden may well be being sheltered by the Taliban in Afghanistan; he equally well may not be. US intelligence still has little idea who Ramzi Yousef, the man convicted of attempting to blow up the World Trade Center in 1993 and now spending the rest of his life in a maximum-security prison in Colorado, actually is: he may be a disciple of Osama Bin Laden, but not even his nationality or real name are actually known despite lots of probing. Whether US intelligence is actually able to supply the Bush administration with the kind of information it now needs, therefore, is - at the very least - an open question.

It will certainly assuage the mounting American bloodlust if Kabul and "suspected mountain hideaways" of Osama Bin Laden are now subjected to unprecedented aerial poundings from the US (and, yes, its "allies") - but without good and sure-footed intelligence, the result will only be to inflict more terrible agony on one of the world's poorest countries by its richest. The real test of George W Bush's character therefore now comes: will he take the easy path by ordering dramatic military action without the intelligence needed to plan or justify it, or will he be able to restrain himself in the face of increasingly insistent demands just to make fearsome retaliatory strikes against someone, somewhere? It has all been bad enough so far, but it could yet become even worse.

Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.

This article first appeared in the 17 September 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the open society?

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood