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This transcript is produced from the teletext subtitles that are generated live for Newsnight. It has been checked against the programme as broadcast, however Newsnight can accept no responsibility for any factual inaccuracies. We will be happy to correct serious errors.

11 September was "larger than the atom bomb" 4/2/02

I remember nothing like it. I think it was even larger, this is a huge remark to make, but larger than the atom bomb. The atom bomb fell at the end of the Second World War. It had an enormous impact. I was living in Massachusetts, on the tip of Cape Cod, so I was 300 miles away from New York when it happened. My children, who live in New York, were furious at me, because they felt that my reaction was not huge enough. Everybody in New York was walking around stunned, apparently. They still haven't gotten over it. For profound causes. It's not a simple matter.

But do you think the fear, in essence, that's gripped America since is about the incomprehension of it, that people simply don't understand what happened?

I think it was a matter of emotional scale, if you will. In America, people get mad at each other, but despite all of the stories about murder and killing and violence in America, the fact is most Americans are peaceful, essentially. They just can't conceive of anyone hating them that much. "How can anyone hate us? We're a sweet nation. We're a good nation. We want good for everyone." Most Americans are pretty innocent. The worst thing that can be said about my country in one sentence is that, if you are going to characterise Americans in one sentence, you would say that they don't like any question that takes longer than ten seconds to answer.

UCLA have 50 new courses, Machiavelli and the events of September 11th, The Old Testament and the events of September 11th. Are people genuinely scrabbling for answers in any text they can find?

I think the key element in it is that Allah is a concept that's absolutely foreign to Americans. It's as if a great divide is coming upon the world. On the one hand, you have a culture that, particularly in America, and to a great degree Europe, is following that culture, where no matter what lip service one pays to religion, no matter how often one invokes the name of Jesus Christ, the fact of the matter is that the majority of people are living their lives with the idea that they're not going to worry about death. They're just going to do as much as they can to hold off death as long as possible. You see, it's become a money culture, "I live for my life," they say, everyone says. And in effect, they are very practical, so far as life goes, and have absolutely no concept that's at all enriching about death. On the other hand, you have Islam, which says this world is a total bloody mess, most of us are poor. Those who are rich at the top are awful and corrupt. We have this abominable life, but we have heaven if we live, and die, especially, for Allah. What you've got is a huge war shaping, in which what you've got, let me speak like a Jamaican for a moment, we've got "Allah versus the Almighty Dollah."

What about the idea of patriotism in America? Even David Lynch has been flying an American flag, saying it's an act of civic union. Is it a more patriotic place?

What are we unifying against? That's what makes me nervous. In the Second World War, all right the country unified against Hitler. That was not only a man and a set of ideas. It was also a country, a set of countries. It was a huge, definable war. This one is, on the one hand, we have our enormous military forces, very skilful indeed, who wipe out the Taliban, to everyone's huge surprise, it didn't take long, and who are we fighting? On the other hand, there's the sense that this could go on, and take on huge proportions, because Islam is virtually half of the world by now, in terms of religious forces.

Do you think that's why George Bush has to talk about the war against terrorism, and the "axis of evil"?

Evil, evil, evil, evil.

What does it make you think when you hear that?

He can't make a speech without using the word "evil" 13 or 15 or 22 times. But where is the evil? They can't even locate Osama Bin Laden? They don't know if he is alive or dead. Fighting evil is a way of dulling people's minds. It's as if in America, because we have so few roots, an Israeli in America, you can find the place where they were born. They even redid the hospital where the person was born, because we rebuild and rebuild, and we make things uglier and uglier every time we rebuild. Given that, there are no roots, compared to European countries we have very few roots. You need something to believe, and patriotism becomes it.

Finally, do you think that America has had a wake-up call about how others in the world view America?

Probably not, so long as they keep saying, "Evil, evil, evil". That is opposed to a wake-up call, that's an anodyne. It's to soothe feelings here. If you are going along and you are living a halfway corrupt life, as certainly America has been doing in terms of world affairs and economics. I don't have to bring in Enron to make my point, then, if you are half evil, nothing soothes you more than to think that the person you are opposed to is totally evil. If the person you are opposed to is half evil also, as indeed I am sure they are, then what you have is the old human mix, which is full of complication, and every question can keep you up all night. For that reason, the attempt in America has been to close the wound quickly, and if it putrefies later, some other doctor will take care of that.

Norman Mailer, thank you very much.

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