It is less than six months ago that I was sitting in the west wing of the White House talking to the first lady, Laura Bush. The two first dogs of the land, Spotty and Barney, nuzzled my feet and legs as we spoke; the president’s wife told me of her days as a student teacher in Maidstone, her holidays in Scotland and her plans to launch a children’s reading campaign in schools in September. She laughed quite a lot, too, and afterwards wrote me a nice letter. There seemed an almost Eisenhoweresque calm and complacency about the place on what was the hottest, steamiest afternoon of the summer: a sense that normality had been restored, that Bill Clinton (still furiously sorting out his pardons in office) had at last been banished, and that it would be forever thus.
Now, I am told, there are 70 “critical intersections” in Washington if a mass evacuation is required in the event of the biological, chemical or nuclear attack that the Bush administration half expects. Each of the 535 congressmen and women has been given “BlackBerry” emergency contact devices that will give prior warning of an attack, say, on the Capitol; if the Capitol is unusable, the House and Senate will convene in the army HQ at Fort McNair on 4th and P Streets. But should there be a mass exodus from what is actually a very small city of only 69 square miles, gridlock and panic would almost certainly ensue: there are nearly 200,000 federal employees working in the city, most of them commuting from the Virginia and Maryland suburbs. If there were an outbreak of smallpox, on the other hand, the orders would be given to quarantine the city with every road out of DC blocked by armed US soldiers.
If all this sounds alarmist, it merely reflects thinking at the highest levels here. I can vouch from personal knowledge that the most senior people, with top intelligence at their disposal, are truly fearful of those biological, chemical or nuclear attacks. The intelligence may be wrong – the CIA and FBI had a disastrous failure on 11 September, after all – but these all-encompassing warnings, delivered to the constant accompaniment of the rumbling F-16s overhead, are believed at the highest levels. The other day a senior Republican senator told me he was convinced that “they” would come back to get the White House and Capitol. The mood at the top, punctuated by bursts of triumphalism over some apparent military success in Afghanistan, is thus jittery in the extreme: Washington froze the other day when a factory in Indiana supposedly came under attack, causing mass fatalities, only for it to emerge that a disgruntled ex-employee had opened fire and killed one former colleague before turning the gun on himself.
In the enforced but highly contrived multi-culturalism of our era, there was a first in the White House on 10 December: President Bush lit a Hanukkah candle to mark the second day of the minor, non-biblical Jewish festival that now competes with Christmas in all politically correct circles. Though Jews comprise no more than 2 per cent of the US population – there are probably more Muslims, though the statistics are unreliable – Hanukkah is now seen as an event that the US president must officially recognise and celebrate. His spokesman, Ari Fleischer, is Jewish and a couple of weeks ago put his spin on how the White House expected Yasser Arafat to behave in the light of the attacks on Jerusalem and Palestine; the most hawkish member of the Bush ad-ministration, the deputy defence secretary, Paul Wolfowitz, is also Jewish and vociferously argues for war on Iraq. But I have never seen these facts mentioned in the media here, as it would be considered unacceptable to do so. But how long will it be, I wonder, before any of the several million US Muslims are similarly assimilated into such trusted positions in US society?
This year, in keeping with the times, there will be no Christmas tours of the White House. There is an 18ft Christmas tree in the Blue Room and several other, smaller ones in the main hall and East Room. A chef has made a huge, gingerbread re-creation of what the White House looked like in 1800, and there is also a 47-figure manger made of wood and terracotta. But the real mood is set by a large blue sign saying “The White House Tours Are Suspended Until Further Notice”. My mind goes back, again, to those balmy, timeless days of last summer when Laura Bush told me how much she enjoyed decorating the White House. The later, compelling memory I will take from the White House of 2001 is seeing Tony Blair with George Bush there on 20 September, just before the latter addressed Congress to announce that we all face a choice: we are either with the Bush administration or with the terrorists. I will never forget how nervy and agitated Bush looked, as I stood a few feet from him – and how, half an hour later, he was transformed into a confident orator addressing the world via television. I often wonder what happened, or what the US president took, to effect so dramatic a transformation in so short a time.
Throughout the US, hospitals and doctors have been reporting more illness and vastly increased fear and worry; an overwhelming majority of Americans have reported serious sleep disturbances and nightmares. Children in early adolescence are most affected. Churches, too, have seen a dramatic rise in attendance. I now receive e-mails from the official presidential prayer team, which are heartbreakingly parochial in their evocations: last week we were asked to pray for the president and four other members of his cabinet, with not so much as a mention of the millions starving in Afghanistan or the other countless innocents suffering under the pounding of the B-52s or the 15,000lb “daisy-cutter” bombs. Only in America could such an e-mail end: “Those giving $250 or more will be added to the exclusive Presidential Prayer Partner Inner Circle and receive special insider reports, a plaque, and an invitation to an exclusive event in 2002 in Washington, DC. Funds given will further the growth of the Presidential Prayer Team, including the production of a daily national radio program designed to highlight our nation’s godly [sic] heritage.”
In my own church last Sunday, a small boy was asked (during a homily for children) what the bible forbade us from doing: “Kill”, he suggested. The celebrant corrected him: “No, the bible says we must not murder. We can kill in self-defence.” A ripple of appreciative murmuring went through adult members of the congregation. I took the Anglican minister to task afterwards, but it is no use challenging America’s monumental self-righteousness and hubris these days. An Englishwoman I know said recently to an American relative that she thought Afghan lives were no more and no less important than American lives, but she was quickly and unpleasantly shut up.
A febrile kind of McCarthyite intolerance is thus now in force here, even towards those of us who found the 11 September attacks as atrocious as any American did: if you do not support military tribunals that suspend all constitutional rights and can then execute in secrecy, you are a traitor. Newscasters and journalists refer constantly to “we” and “our” forces; if you are not 100 per cent in support of what is being done militarily, you are a traitor, too. Heaven knows what it must be like to be a patriotic American Muslim these days.
The must-see television since 11 September has been more than a hundred press conferences by Donald Rumsfeld, the defence secretary, whose callous humour seems to have endeared him to every avid TV-watcher. The tragedy is that he and Colin Powell are the only really able members of the Bush administration; but while Powell has a military rectitude about him, Rumsfeld exudes only ruthlessness. He put poor Geoff Hoon in his place when he said the US allies in Afghanistan had assured the administration that there would be “no problem” in handing Osama Bin Laden over for execution by the US if the troops of other countries should find him first. A couple of days before, Hoon had told David Frost that the UK would hand over Bin Laden only if the US undertook not to execute him; Hoon then went off to Nairobi to help plot war against Somalia, only to find that No 10 had directly contradicted what he said about Bin Laden.
The lurid death of Bin Laden, after all, is what America wants most. There is little if any interest in what happens to Afghanistan afterwards; it’s fine to leave peace-keeping with the Brits or Australians or anyone else if that is what they really want to do, but the US wants only results and it wants blood, fast. Rumsfeld, asked the other day whether it was important that the coalition holds, came back: “No . . . The worst thing you can do is let the coalition define the mission: it’s the mission that defines the coalition.” Put more plainly, every other country in the world must do what the Bush administration orders. It occurs to few Americans that there are other nations that have valid alternative views and attitudes: the principle of the leadership of 5 per cent of the world’s population (Americans) telling 95 per cent (everyone else) what they must do – or else – seems a distinctly un-American, un-democratic notion. But that is exactly what is happening.
The image of John Lindh, aka John Walker, aka Suleyman al-Faris, aka Abdul Hamid – the mixed-up 20-year-old middle-class kid from Marin County, California, who somehow found himself fighting with al-Qaeda at the Mazar-e-Sharif prison uprising – has given some pause for thought here, though. The nation chuckles when Rumsfeld says he looks forward to seeing all al-Qaeda members killed, but only a slight majority of Americans says it wants to see Lindh put on trial for treason; the rest say they would prefer him tried only if there is evidence against him.
That is a right he, as a US citizen, has: those of us who are lawful resident aliens here and thought we were similarly protected by the US constitution can now arbitrarily be taken away and secretly executed. The image of the long-haired young American kneeling, head bowed, before a CIA “interrogator”, his elbows tied behind his back, is one that will forever evoke memories of these tragic three months. It is made all the more poignant by the fate of the CIA man, a former marine called Johnny “Mike” Spann, 32, from Winfield, Alabama: he was murdered in the uprising that followed. And Spann went to his death never realising that he had a potential gold mine of intelligence, an all-American boy like him, kneeling before him.
For me, that juxtaposition of two human tragedies epitomises the awfulness of the weeks that began with the unspeakable atrocities of 11 September. But the cultural insularity of this country can be staggering: what is a mind game played out among media pundits and keyboard colonels in Britain becomes anything but an enjoyable intellectual slugfest when you live and breathe among Americans who are resolutely, unwaveringly of one righteous mindset. I can see only two possibilities for 2002: that the spin of Fleischer et al can and will mislead Americans into believing that the war against terrorism has been won both domestically and overseas, in which case there will be much premature, bellicose triumphalism and honking of horns. Or, in the most dreadful scenario, the new terrorism outrage so feared and dreaded in senior circles here will actually materialise, in which case Americans may start to believe they have been misled by the repetitive simplicities and sophistries they have been fed since 11 September.
Neither is a happy prospect, I’m afraid. In the meantime, Happy Christmas.