- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 23, 2001

There we sat, paralyzed in front of the TV screens, as the horror unfolded second by second. The real became unreal. Somehow, irrationally, our minds wanted the pictures to run in reverse, to undo the destruction and bring the dead back to life.
This was not Sept. 11, however. I am talking about Jan. 28, 1986, the day of the Challenger disaster. I was a B.B.C. journalist at the time, working at Westminster. Like most of my colleagues, I had paid virtually no attention to the Challenger countdown: We all knew space shuttle missions were humdrum affairs. Seconds later, we were huddled around the live feeds from Cape Canaveral, staring in disbelief. At that moment, unnoticed by most of the journalists, a senior Labor politician strolled through the office, on his way back from a studio interview on some now long-forgotten subject. Noticing my colleagues' distress, he paused to glance over their shoulders at the TV screens. All he managed was a shrug. "Trains crash, planes crash," he said. And then he was gone.
A lot has changed in 15 years. (Full disclosure: I have changed too. I'm ashamed to say that I was as skeptical toward Ronald Reagan as any self-respecting member of the Left.) British politics have been transformed. The Conservative Party is adrift. Unelectable Labor has turned into glossy New Labor, the natural party of government. In the days immediately after the attacks on New York and Washington, Tony Blair sounded every bit as determined as Margaret Thatcher in her Falklands heyday.
Outside the American Embassy people have been queuing to sign the book of condolence. John Keegan, the doyen of UK defense writers and the author of that magisterial "The Face of Battle," has spoken of a rekindling of the Anglo-American solidarity that carried a previous generation through the bleakest nights of World War II. I hope he is not being premature, for the words of that Labor politician still haunt me.
Not because I distrust this government, nor because, as I write, many people are debating the wisdom of a military response. We all know that skepticism can strengthen the democratic process. No, what worries me is the vein of anti-Americanism that has deepened here in the months since George W. Bush entered the White House. Naively, I thought that the events of this month would lay all that to rest. Not so. The sound is all around us.
I see it and hear it on the airwaves. What Andrew Sullivan has called "the slow drip of moral equivalence" began within hours of the first explosion at the World Trade Center. Watching B.B.C. TV's "Newsnight" program that evening I listened to the cynical tones of a veteran foreign correspondent, an old Middle East hand, turning his report into an exercise in sardonic detachment, describing the collapse of the twin towers as "a tale of the unexpected." (How I wish I could convey the air of "It's-your-turn-now, Yanks" encapsulated in that glib little phrase.)
On Thursday the B.B.C. ran a live edition of its flagship discussion show "Question Time," in which Philip Lader, the former U.S. ambassador to London, found himself being harangued by an audience which thought America had brought the attack upon itself. One member of the public caused particular offense to those around him because he had the temerity to wear a stars-and-stripes tie.
One of the panellists, a Muslim, is a friend of mine. Although we disagree on many issues, I found most of her comments on the program reasonable enough. What troubled me was the wave of applause that greeted her observation that the United States is "detested" by millions of people around the world. There is no question that statement is true, yet I never expected to hear it being applauded so loudly. Not here. Not at a moment like this. Little wonder that the B.B.C. was forced to issue an apology later.
But the problem goes deeper than one or two sloppy pieces of broadcasting. Among the media set and the chattering classes, disdain for most things American is taken for granted. Mention politics over the dinner table, and you are immediately subjected to a torrent of the same old New Left rhetoric neatly seasoned with the trendy slogans of the anti-globalization movement. America, one writer friend assured me over lunch last Saturday, is not a democracy at all, but a capitalist machine administered by an aristocratic elite. Its people are ignorant, its institutions are corrupt, its foreign policy a conspiracy to turn the rest of the world into captives of the multinationals.
If only my friend was an exception. I know he is not. Here, for instance, is columnist Suzanne Moore in last weekend's edition of the right-of-centre Mail on Sunday: "Bush's policies were a two-finger salute to the rest of the world … Stuff the environment/poverty/anyone who doesn't believe in the American way. We'll carry on with our gas-guzzling, our complacency, our values of superficial wealth and spiritual barrenness and hide behind a Star Wars shield."
Harsh words, but no different to anything I have heard in conversations, day in, day out. (The reference to spirituality is particularly amusing when you recall that the head of the Roman Catholic Church made the front pages here just weeks ago when he declared that Christianity was close to being "vanquished" in Britain.) Hysterically one-sided reporting of the Kyoto negotiations and environmental issues in general has made matters even worse.
The Guardian's Polly Toynbee has already likened America to a rogue state. Just two days after the Trade Center was laid waste, her colleague Seamus Milne felt no compunction about lambasting the United States and deriding the values of the West as a whole: "As Mahatma Gandhi famously remarked when asked his opinion of western civilisation, it would be a good idea."
I don't want to leave anyone with the idea that all reporting is as slanted as this. One can't help noticing that the same omniscient pundits who have spent years vilifying Rudy Giuliani have now discovered that he is a good guy after all. President Bush has the chance to confound them too. Even the Guardian's columnist Hugo Young, voice of the patrician Left, has pointed out the inconsistencies of his own side:
"Europe, especially the Europe of the left, has been deeply confused about what it wants America to be and do. For three decades, the left was the chief critic of American power and influence. France led the charge against the hegemon, and she wasn't alone. Yet, faced with a president who showed signs of withdrawal from global influence and responsibility, what have the social democratic governments of Europe done?
Taken fright at American retrenchment, and pleaded with the United States to stay in the Balkans. The critique that used to tell America to go away now worries about America withdrawing into herself."
Honest voices are still making themselves heard. But a vital instinct has withered away in too many hearts. How many times in the last few days have I heard people say: What happened in New York was terrible, but … ? And then come sotto voce references to Israel, Kyoto or some other supposed iniquity. That dreadful "but" is slowly growing louder. I hear it among parents outside the school gates, shoppers in department stores. The voices I hear on the radio phone-ins are scared, as they have a right to be, but they don't understand America's mission in the world either.
I don't wish to be overly negative. I am still optimistic. There is time to turn this around. To give one small example, the disgracefully parochial foreign news coverage of America's TV networks is a standing joke here. Why can't the broadcasters address that failing? Many of Britain's educated middle classes have come to fear American culture too. We simply see too much of the worst, not enough of the best.
This might seem a trivial point to make at a moment as grave as this. Yet how else do most of us learn about the United States if not through TV, films and music? As he surveyed the murderous work of the hijackers, the novelist Tom Clancy wrote, "It's remarkable to me that America is so hard for some people to understand. We are the most open of books, after all. Our values and customs are portrayed on TV and movie screens all over the world. Is the character of my country so hard to grasp?"
Yes, Mr Clancy it is. Some people an ideologically warped minority don't even want to listen to the message.
The others rarely have a chance to hear it. It is drowned out by the noise. Americans must raise their voices.

Clive Davis writes for the Times and Sunday Times of London

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