Wednesday, September 28, 2011

It's not black and white, nor even red and blue!

The Unions Made the Labour Party

 My piece in the Labour Party conference issue of Tribune 24 Sept 2011

Attempts in Britain to break the connection between the trade unions and their offspring, the Labour Party, have a strong resonance in the United States, where relations are strained between the unions and the Democratic Party.
There are always tensions. The narrower interests of the unions do not always coincide with the greater good of the society at large. In the US, prison unions lobbied along with private prison providers against the decriminalisation of drugs. Police and warders’ unions have lobbied successfully for sweetheart deals on pensions and pay that are far too costly for local governments. It reminds me of Liverpool in the old days of Militant where the infiltrators gave the municipal unions all they could want in return for support in the district Labour Party.
However, even that was infinitely preferable to the current, much more successful crop of infiltrators in both the Labour Party and the US Democratic Party, whose strategy since Tony Blair and Bill Clinton has been to slough off the unions so they can give sweetheart deals to financiers. I am all in favour of accepting corporate donations for parties, as long as all they get in return is a receipt and a respectfully sceptical hearing.
But what makes unions different, certainly in Britain and even in the US, is their ideological commitment to the greater public welfare. The much-reviled Auto Workers Union in the US did win better wages, pensions and healthcare than many other weaker groups of workers. But it did so only after failing to get a better national pension and healthcare system. They helped with cash and workers to end segregation in the South, and even now are strong supporters of protecting state-run Social Security and Medicare benefits and support a single payer healthcare system.
For such endeavours, and in reward for their efforts to help Democratic Party elections with volunteers and cash, Clinton dismissed them as “special interests” – to be distinguished, of course, from the Wall Street bankers who also filled his coffers, in return for the deregulation that George W Bush built on and led to the crisis and slump of the past two years.
In the wake of that crisis, on both sides of the Atlantic, unions have rediscovered a new combative spirit. Their members are more responsive to calls for action fuelled by the ever-potent mix of self-interest – after all, they are under attack – and moral indignation at the callow, selfish ideologies propounded by governments.
In Wisconsin, the public unions rallied unprecedented thousands of ordinary citizens against what they correctly saw as the right-wing governor’s ideologically motivated attack on the rights of all workers and the entitlements of all ordinary citizens.
Sadly, Barack Obama’s response was to offer even more than the pound of flesh the Republicans in Washington had asked for. He threw in social security and Medicare and more spending cuts.  His motivation is a mystery. Until then, the one sure thing the Democrats had to beat the Republicans was their attack on programmes most Americans hold sacred. Even the Tea Partiers carried placards demanding: “Keep the government’s hands off my Social Security”.
Social Security was always regarded as the “third rail” of American politics, but the Republican budget attacking Medicare added an overhead wire as well. Now Obama has firmly grasped both – and short-circuited the most energetic Democrat campaign item. The President persists in trying to compromise
with ideologues who are, well, uncompromising.
What he needs, like the Labour Party, is an ideology to combat theirs. The unions, on both sides of the Atlantic, are at the core of a communal concern that led to 30 years of unprecedented growth and prosperity in the US, and nearly 60 years in Europe. Some union leaders may be almost as power hungry and greedy as their corporate opponents – but then some business leaders, such as Warren Buffet, are more progressive than New Labour and New Democrats. However, the effort to cut the union ties is on both sides of the Atlantic not only an unprincipled effort to mute the voices of working people in the political process, it is also a self-defeating move that will alienate the very voters and activists the parties need to be elected. Those New Labour apparatchiks might get selected without the unions. They won’t be elected.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Palestinian Stat(us) at UN and the US.

United Nations Report
Once Again, in Full View of the World, U.S. Acting for Israel, Against Its Own Interests By Ian Williams

The U.N. vote on Palestine is an oddity. No one can be sure what benefit the Palestinians get from it, and there is good reason to believe that its main current motivation is an earnest desire on the part of President Mahmoud Abbas’ administration to show some progress—any progress at all, in fact—from its appeasement to Israel and the U.S.
On one level, the Palestinian move to up- grade its status is the continuation of a long march through international institutions that developed momentum in the 1990s. That upgraded the Palestinian delegation to that of a unique observer mission just fractionally short of statehood, and restated and strengthened resolutions and expressions of international law on the conflict.
But why revive the issue now? Many Palestinians see it as a diversion and a means to shore up a corrupt and compro-
mising administration in the Palestinian Authority—and, contrary to Israeli rhetoric, not as a means to kill Oslo, but to maintain flickers of life in that Zombie-like structure as it shambles toward the mirage of a two-state solution.
However, whatever Abbas’ motives, and no matter how inadvertently he has hit the right target, the illogical fury of the Israeli reaction, and the servile echoing of it by the Obama administration, should vindicate him.
Not since the British and Canadians burned the White House in 1813 has American foreign policy been so publicly and humiliatingly trashed. And it is all self-inflicted.
As Obama reminded the international delegates, an American president stood at the podium of the General Assembly in September 2010 and looked forward to welcoming a Palestinian state within the year—but a year later he was ordering his diplomats to join with Israel to take every measure, including abusing the U.S. veto to thwart the consummation he himself had promised the year before.
This year, Obama restated the administration line: “Peace will not come through statements and resolutions at the United Nations...Ultimately, it is the Israelis and the Palestinians who must live side by side. Ultimately, it is the Israelis and the Palestinians—not us—who must reach agreement on the issues that divide them: on borders and on security, on refugees and Jerusalem.” He omitted any direct threats or references to the Palestinian application for membership, or even Palestine’s attempt to upgrade its status at the U.N. 

The diplomatic silence might have avoided irritating the Palestinians, and perhaps slightly camouflaged the humiliation of what is, after all, still the world’s biggest military and economic power, pandering to the crazed ideologues of a small rogue state.

The threatened veto rewards a U.S. “ally” which had defied a plea to halt settlement building and had humiliatingly announced a round of illegal construction during a visit by Obama’s vice president, Joe Biden.
In return, Washington has lost what little trust it had with the newly enfranchised Arab electorates; alienated major re- gional powers like Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia; and lost its credibility with the two-thirds or more of U.N. members who have recognized Palestine or indicated an intention to do so.
on the opposite side of the world.

If Obama does not do enough damage, Congress is likely to cause even more. In the heyday of American power, Congress began to cut funding for the U.N.—over the Palestinian issue. The assumption was that the U.N. needed the U.S. more than vice versa. That is no longer quite as true, and congressional threats to defund the U.N. and its agencies if the members of the organization vote for some form of Palestinian statehood will enhance the damage to American prestige—and leverage— when Washington wants something from the U.N., as it increasingly does. With the parlous state of the U.S. economy and its overstretched military, Washington will in- deed be going back to the U.N., but will find it more difficult than ever to get the legitimation it wants and needs.
On the Israeli side, reports of Israeli “diplomacy” suggest that harangues to foreign ambassadors and ministers by right- wing Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman are predictably counterproductive. If countries pay any attention, it is to the American dummy, not the Russian-Israeli ventriloquist, since American power, even rapidly evaporating as it is, is still substantial.
Perhaps the one hint of self-interested lucidity in the White House and State Department is the realization of just how much damage an American veto would do to Washington’s standing in the world. However, the efforts to get other countries to “help” by not supporting the Palestinian bid in the Security Council presume a global public that is all of below average intelligence. Widely advertised, the U.S. was hoping to squeeze enough weak links to ensure that the resolution would not get the nine necessary positive votes.
Do Obama and Clinton really think that the rest of the world would not know who had brought about the defeat? Or that those countries dragooned in would not re- sent being forced to share the blame?
Quite apart from any effects on Palestinians, the U.S. maneuvers can hardly help its professed larger projects in the United Nations: democratization, enhancing the rule of law, and prevention of crimes against humanity. It not only does truth to the rumors of double standards spread so assiduously by sundry dictators and their friends, but if the U.S. were successful in suborning European and other allies, it strips away Washington’s credibility when it comes to advocating, for example, the Responsibility to Protect.
In short, not only is there no rational self-interest for the U.S. in thwarting Pales- tine’s efforts, it actually detracts from American interest.
However, it is based on the fatally flawed policy introduced by Bill Clinton, which was to bypass international law and insist that the road to peace lay through bilateral negotiations. So a Sumo wrestler steals the tricycle of a diapered toddler, and the solution is put them in the area together for a fair fight to settle the issue.
Which brings us to the Israeli motivation
for combating this. In the words of Macbeth, the Israeli narrative is “a tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Certainly Lieberman’s harangues to diplomats seem to be counterproductive, not least because they all remember that the Quartet, the U.S. president, the U.N. and even, very grudgingly, Netanyahu himself, all have accepted that the road to peace is a two-state solution, with boundaries based on the pre-1967 armistice line.
So why should the full force of Israeli hasbara, the John Boltons, Eli Wiesels, Alan Dershowitzs and the rest of the crowd, not to mention the full resources of the U.S. State Department, be marshaled against the Palestinian resolution?
To begin with, of course, Netanyahu ac cepts a Palestinian state the way he would welcome a melanoma. He was only kid- ding. Many of those screaming behind him would not even pay lip service to the idea. They repudiate the whole idea of a Palestinian state and resent any implication of Palestinian rights in any part of Israel and the territories it illegally occupies. Many such hysterical supporters in the U.S. are also deniers of Obama’s American nation- ality and have campaigned furiously against him and the Democrats, which adds extra poignancy to Obama’s pander- ing to them. They will still hate him.
There is also a rational, albeit cynical, point. A Palestinian state, whether a member of the U.N. or not, can and would be accepted as a state member of the In- ternational Criminal Court—indeed its appli- cation to sign the Con- vention establishing it is already under consider- ation. That has pro- found implications for Israeli civil and military leaders. While the coun- try that kidnapped Eichmann and brought him to justice has not signed the convention, its citizens would be li- able for crimes commit- ted in the West Bank and Gaza if ratification followed statehood.

But there is also an element in the psycho- politics of extreme Zionism which reminds
them that they are indeed people of the law. Although the interminable court proceedings about land-grabs and civilian rights invariably lead to ratification of occupation misdeeds, they do go through the process!
One is reminded of some of the evasions of Talmudic exegesis such as the idea that a telephone wire around an area can make it an enclosed part of one’s backyard. While the rest of the world regards the territories as occupied, Israel refers to them as “dis- puted,” because, they say, no state had recognized title to them. Of course, a Palestin- ian state would unravel any notional tele- phone wire the courts might hitherto have accepted around the boundary.
In the end, one does have to wonder what the Palestinians as people get out of the U.N. bid. But certainly, the embarrass- ment it has caused to Obama and Clinton have made them take Palestinian positions more seriously than they have in the past, while removing any residual illusions that some Palestinian leaders might have that the U.S. is an honest broker in the conflict.
Obama, reportedly, shares the detestation that most reasonable people have for Netanyahu, so one can only welcome any- thing that makes the partnership more uncomfortable for him.


Friday, September 09, 2011

Topless Towers

WTC, 9-11, memories
I wrote this for a London magazine which in the end spiked it, as I remember for a piece by a close friend of the editor who was distressed by the smoke from a vantage point at the opposite end of the island. So here it is. In memoriam, ten years later.


Osama’s Victory.

September 2001

I moved from midtown to lower Manhattan in late August 2001. South Street Sea Port seemed like home to someone who left Liverpool twelve years before. Indeed in some ways I had hardly left. The plaque on the esplanade mentioned that it built on rubble landfill from blitzed London that returning supply ships used as ballast.. Those ships actually came from bombed Liverpool. I’d used it to illustrate my thesis that American civilian experience of war was vicarious and inaccurate compared with that of Europeans, even younger ones like me brought up playing in bomb sites and listening to tales of evacuations and bomb shelters from older family members.

I had developed a routine in the new apartment. A brisk cycle ride round the southern tip of the island, past Battery Park and up the new bike up the Hudson that begins by running through the dark valley between the World Trade Centre and the World Financial Centre. On the morning of September 11, I began my day as usual by checking my email as I swigged my first mug of tea, sitting, I must confess, in stark naked comfort.

The email brought several promising commissions, and so I decided to postpone my daily ride, even though the blue skies and equable temperature outside promised one of New York’s few sweet spots between its more customary extremes of frigidity and torridity. Instead I began work on an article for Punch, on the underlying wobbliness of the American economy.

I had written “The” was when I heard the bang. It sounded like a building collapsing, so I ran to the window to look out. The fish porters from the Fulton market were standing in the square of Peck Slip staring up as if at the Second Coming. I pulled on clothes and ran down with a cell phone, recorder, binoculars and a camera. If this wa sindeed the second coming, it was the early stages, the arrival of Satan on Earth. The World Trade Centre’s north tower had an exit wound some three quarters of the way up, with flames erupting from the north east corner , and thick black smoke framing the brightness.

“Look there’re people jumping” a woman shouted in anguish. As far as I could see, what she thought were people was in fact metal siding drifting downwards on the wind. However, my reassurance was premature: shortly afterwards, that’s just what people trapped in the upper floors began doing.

I began trying to call various newsrooms on my cell phone, to no avail. Either everyone else in Lower Manhattan was hitting their dial buttons at the same time, or, I suspected, the antennae were on top of the Twin Towers.

I ran inside to call from my desk phone, but Canadian Broadcasting’s Toronto newsroom was already calling. Ducking between my fire escape platform and the phone, I began to tell them what was happening. The other tower exploding at a slightly lower level. Then the apocalyptic crash as it collapsed.

Up the East River Drive, the FDR. I could see along the shore line as ambulances, fire trucks and police cars fought the rush hour traffic to get closer. Then the evacuees began to trudge by. I had seen refugees in war zones before, but to see endless columns of necktied office workers was a new experience. Most of them marched onwards stolidly without a backward glance, perhaps not realizing that this stretch of their route offered a direct view of the disaster they were fleeing.

On the Brooklyn Bridge, the marching files were silhouetted against the sky like a scene from an Eisenstein film. But then, even those who still stood transfixed in the square had no view. A white cloud, like Pliny’s description of Vesuvius spread from the tower. Heavy choking white ash which fell like snow over the area. By then, most of the rubber neckers had joined the majority marching out the city. A few optimistic ones tried to stop yellow cabs, which sensibly wanted nothing to do with them: just to get out.

In the square some young Indian women had lost their shoes in the rush, and were bleeding from head wounds. My girlfriend invited them to wash off in the bathroom and phone relatives before setting off. A young African man, probably illegal since he did not want to give his name, waited anxiously. He’d been taking his three year old son to pre-school and had lost him in the stampede. In one of the day’s happy stories, he found him, intact at the nearby hospital where some passer by had taken him. He stood in the square in front of us, hugging him thankfully and staring at the column of smoke that marked the site.

I’d been describing the scene from my fire escape for CBC in Toronto, who told me to stand by for ninety seconds for “local announcements.” As they did so, the second tower collapsed. It was the first time I lost my calm. I bellowed down the phone, cursing them and telling them what to do with their local announcements, but to no avail. I had to hold the line open as it was transferred from editor to editor, producer to producer, mostly ignoring the call waiting signals which represented the more successful attempts of friends and family to check on our safety. As the news spread, inward circuits were blocked as people across the world tried to do the same.

A second cloud headed across Manhattan, adding more white ash to the dust that drifted like snow across downtown. By now I was recounting the morning’s events for the BBC, while wrestling with an illustrative side issue. I had mentioned to another editor earlier that Mayor Rudy Giuliani had built his $16 million dollar command and control centre for emergencies and disasters in the World Trade Centre. She commissioned an immediate piece.

I thought it was a potent metaphor for the inefficacy of expensive Star Wars defence systems against this type of attack and spent several hours alternating between radio interviews by phone and checking my memories. It was true. The “bunker,” widely derided as a grandiose folly when it was built, was indeed on the 23rd floor of number 7 WTC, already aflame and later to collapse.

I clicked the send button and as the call volume fell, the adrenalin aftershock set in. Coughing and hoarse with dust and talking, I decided I could take it no longer. I had to go to see what was happening closer to the scene.

The Pompeii parallels became more apt outside. On Fulton Street, the local deli’s display of flowers was shrouded in ash. A fish porter’s breakfast lay in its foil tray, similarly coated, and the little mobile hot dog stands stood abandoned, their bagels and buns buried in a drift of grey dust.

Smoke streamed across towards Brooklyn, and the emergency vehicles stirred up dust devils as if on a desert road as they sped through the police lines to the epicentre. Looking straight down Fulton St, I expected to see a stump, a pyramid of rubble. But who’d a thought the old towers had so little substance in them. It was clear that despite the column of smoke, there was nothing to be seen.

I could flee, or carry on working. Firstly I wanted to pay my debts so we went to the downtown hospital to give blood. They were not accepting it, and what’s more, there was what I thought of as a “fee fo fi fum” warning out. The blood of Englishmen smelt of mad cow disease and was not acceptable.

So brandishing a tape recorder I approached Alex MacLain, a junior doctor at NYU hospital. She had been on duty forty hours, recalled just as she was leaving. She described an early rush of burn victims, “glove injuries,” she said, and explained. “Like one woman came in, and all the skin on her arm and shoulder came off.” Then there was a rush of impact injuries and fractures: followed by an ominous hiatus. She had come to the corner of Fulton St to see what was happening.

As we spoke, behind us I could the lighthouse shaped Titanic monument. In front of us the world was ending in fire, not ice. Coughing despite the masks that the local hospital was distributing, I suddenly had a terrible thought. We were breathing people. There was no way that everyone could have escaped. This smoke, these ashes, were from a massive funeral pyre: the Windows on the World had become a peephole into Hell.

Blowing around in the ashes, the memories of the world’s life were flashing by in form of charred and chewed papers. Plans for environmental projects financed by Wall Street bonds, cheques for unimaginable numbers of zeroes, bunkering invoices from Pakistan, Japanese investment reports, and personnel files. I learned from a police deposition that a Ms Watkins earned $500 a day in a massage parlour, charging $40 for a hand job, $80 for oral sex and $150 for full sex. But it had done her little good since her pimp took the lot. Down by Wall St, in front of Federal Hall, where George Washington was proclaimed the first president, his statue overlooked his handiwork, his hair appropriately powdered like a Georgian wig for the first time in two centuries.

The NYPD working press pass says it entitles the bearer to cross police lines. It had never worked before, so I was not surprised to be greeted with customary brusqueness when I probed the police perimeter to get closer. I moved south and discovered a motley Dunkirk style line of tour boats and tug boats at Battery Park, waiting for evacuees. It was a weak link in the cordon and I sidled through.

On the Hudson side of Manhattan, the debris, smashed vehicles and even deeper ashes made for an even more apocalyptic scene. We were closer and the wind blew from the west into the fire, giving a clearer view of the firefighters trying to control the blaze in the surrounding buildings. Next to us, lines of hoses led from the fireboats which normally only seemed to provide water displays for the visiting cruise liners. Now they were pumping thousands of tons of Hudson water into the ruins.

I lent my cell phone to several exhausted firemen, checking on children, wives and friends. Someone had forced open a local Deli, and they were helping themselves to water and snacks. Even though it was technically looting, no one took more than they needed, except one young man, who looked like a local resident. He helped himself to a pack of cigarettes, paused, and then took two more. Tobacco does that to a person, I thought, even as I wondered at an ash covered fireman who came out with a huge lit cheroot in his mouth. How much smoke can you take!

Another fireman came out of the store. Caked in dust and sweat, he was voraciously stuffing a banana into his mouth in between gulps of water. He looked around with a sort of pugnacious puzzlement at the ash, the debris, the mud, and the smoke. “Can you believe it?” he asked me, “I’m looking for a fucking garbage can!” He threw the peel at the ashes on the floor as if it were a demonstration against the lack of civilization in the neighbourhood.

One of the firemen who had used my phone was telling me bitterly “you know, three hundred of guys got caught when they collapsed.” He then said. “I don’t want to offend anyone, but we just gotta go in and nuke the whole fucking Middle East now.” It was timely reminder. It was early days, and no one had fingered the perpetrators, but somehow, I didn’t want to remind him of Timothy MacVeigh and the anti Arab hysteria that the media had perpetrated before it had happened.

It was now eight hours from the first crash. I had enough local colour, and thought that I was in danger of degenerating from a reporter to a rubbernecker, so I decided to make my way back and file. I headed south only to meet a more than usually implacable police cordon on the Hudson River promenade, “Get on the boat, “they said. pointing to a tug whose bow was nudging the sea wall. “No thanks I said politely,” waving my press card. “You have to. It’s dangerous.”

“I’m press- it’s my job to take risks. I’ve been in Beirut and Balkans. No one’s shooting at me here, I told him, brandishing my press card.
“Get on, or we put you on. We already put two of you guys on.” he said with “make my day” relish. The tug took us to New Jersey, and dropped us at a pier with large signs saying “Condemned structure. No trespassing.” I had no idea how to get back into Manhattan to file, or to wash or change for that matter.

The view from the boat was almost worth it. The Sun setting behind us was lighting up the intact windows of lower Manhattan as if they too were on fire, and tingeing the column of smoke with an appropriately bloody hue. All weekend I had been sailing on the Hudson from the Manhattan Yacht Club out of the North Cove in the shadow of the WTC. We had used the two towers as our navigation aids as we practiced tacking up and down the Harbour. Their absence was even more striking. And I remembered, so was that of my fellow crew member, a Brit I had met for the first time, who had just arrived and was working on the 25 floor of one of the towers. He only had an office number. Death moved from wholesale to personal.

In New Jersey, waiting on the pier were police, paramedics, Red Cross, waited for casualties. They had spent hours watching the pyre burn across the Hudson: they wanted desperately to help, but we were disappointments for their eleemosynary instincts, deportees more than evacuees. The lines of ambulances and doctors waiting on the other side, no casualties emerged, except as smoke.

Hours later, a train from New Jersey to midtown, and a long hike down the East River side brought us home. The police manned checkpoints on all the roads, but as so often in New York the bike paths and foot paths are invisible to drivers. The police overlooked the route along the esplanade, and it became my own personal route for several days. At home, the power was gone, so were the phone lines. And a week later they still were.

Downtown reminded me of divided Berlin or Beirut. To the North of the police perimeter, there were bright lights, shops, bars and restaurants open for teeming crowds. To the south the inhabitants stumbled about in the dark. If they trudged North to resupply, they were shaken down at innumerable checkpoints by a motley array of military and police uniforms. I suspect, despite rather than because of them, there was little of the looting or lawlessness that the stereotype of New York City would suggest. The only vehicles moving were official vehicles with flashing lights on top. Looking for light relief, I suggested ”Hey, if aliens were looking on, they’d think it was the lights made them move!”

At the end of the week, the Police commissioner reported that crime was way down. Even the criminal classes rose to the occasion. Radio reports dwelt on the few crimes. A man appropriated a fireman’s jacket, a retired warder stole some watches while someone else broke into Brooks Brothers. Brooks Brothers! Did he need a suit to start work on Monday? One thing was sure. He would pay some small part of the price for the absent perpetrators when the courts opened.

Our recently stocked refrigerator was thawing rapidly. On the first night, exhausted , dusty and thirsty I made an executive decision was made. There was a bottle of champagne in the fridge still cool. We knocked it back before it could warm and sank into fitful sleep, punctuated by long vigils at the window watching as the first convoys of armoured cars and troops arrived along the FDR, and noting the absence of ambulances among the sporadic bursts of traffic.

We began an ironic tribute to Paris Zoo menu from the siege of 1870. A born again carnivore with a cholesterol problem, I had stocked up on venison, buffalo burgers and ostrich loin. No fricassee of elephant trunk at the back of the freezer, but we ate our way through the rest.

Just around the corner, our problem was writ large, much larger in fact. There was no power for the Fulton Street fish market, where millions of dollars worth of fish waited in freezers without power. Never particularly sweet smelling, I quailed at the thought of their eventual exhumation.

Two days later, the police allowed in generators for them, and trucks to ship some out. I went down to check. “Is this fish being dumped or sol?” “It’s still in ice, it’s fine,” they told me, as I made a mental note to drop fish from my menu for a few weeks. In a way, it was a reassuring sign of the return of the commercial impulse. One bleak reminder of the shock of the tragedy was that no umbrella sellers appeared on the streets to sell their wares when the rain of dust fell. After two days, in China town, a store keeper was selling visitors photo postcards of the explosions at 2 for three dollars. And of course there were flags, a dollar each.

The flags began to appear two days later. CBC wanted a series of interviews for their local stations, so I got up at 6 and went down to the river side so my cell phone could get a strong signal from across the East River in Brooklyn. Half an inch of rain had fallen, and more was bucketing down I shuddered at the thought of the murky slurry that the rescuers would be working in.

In the grey morning light, the low clouds obscured the smoke and the rain even quelled the ubiquitous smell and dust. Under the shelter of the elevated highway, life had returned to normal. Elderly Chinese from nearby Chinatown did their exercises, and one solitary man brandished a sword in an intricate series of balletic movements. He did not pause as a column of a steel workers formed up in bright yellow water proofs and hard hats with their union Local number written on the side. Led by a large stars and stripes they headed south into the inferno.

About a dozen homeless usually live in the vicinity and four of them who seemed to make a virtual family were inspired to mount their own surreal march. Pushing the one in a wheel chair, they paraded with a placard, “United We Stand, Divided We Fall. New York City/The World.” Pausing in between radio interviews, I asked “Why?” “Gotta a ciggy?” one replied in an London accent. “No, sorry!” I apologized as the phone rang, from, of all places, Iquiluit in the Inuit new territories.

I’ve never understood flag fetishism, but I could see why people would want to respond. Over the next few days, the flags proliferated, but in almost reverse proportion to the distance from what the news reports were calling Ground Zero. “Positive patriotism” is all too often sullied with Xenophobia, which is never an exact science. Maronite Churches were firebombed along with Sikh temples. Maronite and Sikh enthusiasm for Islam, let alone Islamic fundamentalism, has been historically someone tenuous, as anyone should know. But few voters in the world’s only superpower ever take time to study the world, which was perhaps precisely why I was standing in a disaster zone.

Another friend called, with semi light relief, but again with a dark side.

His friend Mohammed worked in a restaurant where 11 of the 14 waiters were also called Mohamed. They used their colleges as names. “Hi Princeton! Hi Columbia!” He was earnestly seeking advice on how to change his name. Quickly

You could almost tell how foreign a storekeeper, or a yellow cab driver felt from how many flags they are flying or sticking like talismans on their doors and windows. And the more I spoke to people, I could see solid reasons for the fear. “Someone must be punished,” is a universal cry. I did a radio interview for the left wing station Pacifica in California. The anchorman on the other side of the continent said “We have to punish them.” Inhaling the smoke from what was after all a near miss for me personally, I asked, “ How do you punish eighteen people who have just killed themselves? And if they had accomplices, can you trust the ideologues round this administration, the Cheneys and Rumsfeldts, to identify the real perpetrators rather than use the opportunity to hit at their own perverse enemies’ list?”

I could trust Powell, who knows that even gestures have their price, but the others worried me. Each day, the news brought more suggestions of right wing wish lists being tacked across the stable door after the Trojan horse had already exploded. More wire taps, tougher immigration, more defence spending, and calls for action all the more ominous for being so nebulously targeted.

I had seen the best side of New York and America in the long lines of volunteers, the heroism of the rescuers, the donations of food, clothes, and money and the flood of resources available when the will was there. But the urge to do something could be as innocuous as standing on street corners with candles, or it could lead to applause for the incineration of other faraway cities of which they know or care little.

As Sunday drew on, Mayor Giuliani opened the way to Wall St. Back to normalcy. Radio advertisements told Americans that the way to show their patriotism was to show their support for American companies. “Buy Stock,” the broker harangued. I did a double take: it was genuine, not some subversive parody. And within sniffing distance, an army of rescuers used muscle power to sift the still smouldering ruins, looking with almost certain futility for survivors among the five thousand lives snuffed out in less than an hour on bright sunny morning in Manhattan.