NEW YORK - A lone, exhausted-looking saxophone player stood this week on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan and tried with the remnants of his strength to eke out of his instrument the strains of "God Bless America," a song that has status equivalent to that of the national anthem. This was relatively early in the evening, but the pedestrian traffic was sparse. Many inhabitants of New York still prefer these days to sit at home in front of their television sets. Every few minutes they see a commercial offering them the opportunity to purchase a set of flags: One to hang over the door of their home, one for the car window, one to pin onto their lapel and one to stick on the refrigerator door in the kitchen.
For only $14.99 you can get a small banner emblazoned with the most current phrase these days: "God bless America." These words are also screened on the sides of the highways, on the computerized apparatus for giving traffic updates to drivers.
A wave of patriotism is inundating America from sea to shining sea. The thousands of children who filled Madison Square Garden last week for a training game of the New York Knicks were asked before the game began to rise and sing the national anthem. At a nightclub called S.O.B. (short for "son of a female canine"), Jamaican reggae star Antony B. stopped the show at its climactic moment and asked for 10 seconds of silence in memory of the dead from the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center.
There is something childish, and also touching, about America's attempts to shape its bereavement patterns, but the patriotism and the bereavement are accompanied by great anxiety, like the anthrax hysteria this week. To this is added an economic crisis, which is quite deep. This combination could be dangerous.
The United States today is a country without an opposition; all of America is standing beside President George W. Bush as if he were one of the greatest presidents in its history. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon can only envy Bush for the obedience of the American media. Israel's experience in Lebanon shows that it is not possible to wipe out terror by bombing the cities of the country that affords it protection. The failure of the attempts to nurture a "moderate leadership," i.e. an obedient leadership, among the Palestinians is worthy at least of mention in Washington, which is apparently trying to set up a pro-American coalition in Afghanistan.
Thoughts of this nature hardly exist at all in the American media. The reports are for the most part based on information the Pentagon provides. There is hardly any skepticism or criticism. This is particularly evident in comparison with the BBC reports, which are also received on cable television.
The American television networks have complied with the administration's request not to air statements by Osama Bin Laden and his people. The television networks in Britain refused a similar request. Self-censorship can be no less dangerous than government-imposed censorship. Terror is liable to do to America what the fear of Communism did to it in the 1950s. At the moment, there are no signs of a new McCarthyism.
On the contrary: Everybody is warning themselves that in the strongest democracy in the world there is a series of flaws in the area of human rights, including the death penalty. But life with terror is confronting Americans with the most difficult test they have known since the days of Watergate; in the immediate future, this will be the main story coming out of here.
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