You can teach us how to behave

War on Terror: Britain & America - Bonnie Greer, US-born, argues that this is Britain's hou

To be an American is to live in a dream. America is the child of Milton, a product of a clear, messianic puritanism, what Ronald Reagan once called "the shining city on the hill".

To believe that you can rise above your station, go beyond your boundaries, bend and shape the world to fit your own parameters - this is what it means to be an American. Every American is given, as their birthright, a narrative, a story that plays in their head and in their heart over and over, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, until the moment of their death: "You can do it." This fervent, almost fanatical self-belief is what fuels America. It's the American dream.

On 11 September, America was bombed out of that dream into reality.

One aspect of this reality is the contempt in which Americans are held abroad. I left the US to live in Britain 15 years ago. Like all expats, I have been subjected, from time to time, to everything from condescension to outright hostility. Even when you have taken citizenship, married, raised a family, changed your accent, there is still someone or something that lets you know that not everyone loves the country you were brought up to believe is the best in the world.

Expats come to see their native land through the eyes of others. Much too often, it is not a pretty sight: the shambles of last year's presidential election; the mania for capital punishment; the Clinton scandals; the obsession with guns; the runaway capitalism; the all-consuming, dumbing-down nature of American popular culture; the disregard for the environment; the one-sided foreign policy; the hypocrisy of race relations.

Watching, on this side of the water, American television coverage of the terrorists' assaults on the World Trade towers and the Pentagon, I was struck by how "soft" it was compared to the British and European news. Yes, events were reported accurately and in full, but the emphasis was on human-interest stories: people hugging one another, candles in the wind, voices of defiance. Amid all this physical and emotional expression of grief and support, no one in the media seemed to pose the questions: "What is our place in this world? Why are we, Americans, the target for such hatred?"

For me, the most poignant aspect of that horrific day was not of the exploding twin towers of the World Trade Center, nor the heart-ripping last phone calls of the hostages on the planes to the people they loved. It was the image of a New Yorker, standing not far from the smouldering, stinking ruins where his brother was buried. The man turned, looked into the camera and said: "I've got to find out why so many people hate us. I don't understand. I have to tell my son something. I have to find out."

For the moment, Americans are being given a face and a few countries as bull's-eyes. Here is the enemy, we are told; and, in the same breath, you can overcome anything if you really want to, you can continue the narrative, you can start dreaming again. There is even talk, in some quarters, of closing the borders - as if a giant protective shield could be pulled over the nation and everyone could snuggle down with their milk and cookies and it would all go away.

But we know that it won't. No American who witnessed the events of 11 September will again live without uncertainty, or without fear.

People in the street, after the first stage of these events is over, will want to know how to live in a world where no one is safe. They have witnessed the violent birth of 21st-century America. They have grown up. Now they want to know how to proceed.

This is where the special relationship can play its part. Britons have lived through the Blitz and, more recently, through the devastation wreaked by successive IRA campaigns. Britons know that the signs in the London Tube telling them to report any package seen unattended is not some "quaint example of English lost and found", as one American said to me, but a reminder of a real and present danger. People here have experienced road checkpoints. Britons can teach Americans how to live in a world of terrorism - and how to carry on despite the terrorists' campaigns. Equally, Britons could - must - teach their trans-atlantic cousins a new definition of patriotism: less gung-ho, less self- righteous. As one multicultural society to another, Britain could show America how patriotism can be engendered with a minimum of flag-waving and posturing, and with an acute sensitivity to other nations and other peoples.

As a post-imperial power, Britain has been learning for a long time how to be in a world where power shifts and alliances are not black and white. Britain's is a world of ambiguity, uncertainty, change.

It is time for this country to see itself as the other anglophone nation, the alternative to big talk, big money and big guns. It alone can help America to stop, think, tread carefully.

This wisdom is what America now desperately needs. Britain does not need to hand the US a blank cheque. Instead, America needs the steady hand of a close and true friend, for the sake of itself and all of humanity.

Come the hour, come the nation. The UK is ready. After years of living in this great nation, and becoming a citizen, it is the Brit in me that says to the beloved land of my birth: "Look to, and listen to, Britain." While the American in me says to the country I have chosen: "You can lead if you want to. It's your call."

Bonnie Greer is a playwright, author, and the Chancellor of Kingston University.

This article appears in the 01 October 2001 issue of the New Statesman, What would you do?