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Saturday, 13 July, 2002, 11:30 GMT 12:30 UK
Farewell to Uncle Sam
US flags
The US: "It is uncomplicated, it is upbeat"
Stephen Sackur

For my children this is home. Michael and Leila were born here and have the US passports to prove it.

Joe was raised amid the arid Jerusalem hills but we journeyed across the Atlantic long before he could register the pain and hate that disfigures that ancient land.

Maybe it is just my imagination but these children of mine seem indelibly marked by the New World.

House in the US
"Americans volunteer their time and money for community causes"
This is a place where the sun shines all summer long, where conspicuous consumption is a God-given right. So much to take for granted.

And for the children - what lengths the earnest parents of the Washington suburbs go to for their little angels. Ballet class, computer camp, therapy for this and that.

When I was a kid my biggest treat was to go to Elland Road and watch Leeds United with my Dad. Sometimes it would be frightening. When I was seven or eight I remember watching, bemused, as a hundred Leeds supporters threw bricks at a bus full of rival fans.

They were chanting: "You're gonna get you're effing heads kicked in."

Watching the wizards

Fast forward 30 years. Joe and I are heading to Washington's magnificent indoor arena to see the greatest basketball player who ever lived - Michael Jordan - out of retirement to play for our own home-town Wizards.

Aside from the game, which is won and lost in the final seconds, we're entertained by cheerleaders, acrobats, jugglers... oh and the "Kisscam". It is a roving camera that every so often focuses on a couple in the crowd.

When their image is beamed onto the stadium's giant screen, they are supposed to lock lips in a passionate embrace. The best snog of the night wins a prize... embarrassing - yes, tacky - certainly, but it makes for better memories than a brick in the face.

I like America, you can probably tell. It is uncomplicated, it is upbeat - people smile at you. Rampant materialism co-exists with an impressive generosity of spirit.

Americans volunteer their time and money for community causes - especially school and church - on a scale unheard of in liberal Europe.

But, we Sackurs are leaving. And now that the time has come, I'm actually ready to go.

You see, five years in America have left me - if you'll pardon a term favoured by this country's legion of pop psychologists - "conflicted".


This vast continent is uniquely prosperous and powerful - but it is also self-righteous, complacent and stunningly introverted. And even here surrounded by the comforts of my Washington home, I feel currents pulling me back towards European shores.

For all the individual warmth and generosity of its citizens, the US is organised on a ruthlessly competitive principle: in life there are winners and losers

A few days ago my wife was at the doctors. While she was waiting a woman staggered in, clearly in great pain. 'I need to see a doctor', she said proffering an ID card. Twenty minutes of phone calls and consultations followed.

The woman was told her insurance was no longer valid. She'd have to go away. At that she broke down and cried. Our family practitioner came out to restore calm. "Ma'am," he said, "I can see you, but you'll have to pay."

The defeated woman shuffled off - her purse unable to alleviate her pain. Forty million Americans lack basic health insurance - in the country with the best doctors, the best hospitals, what a depressing failure of collective political will.

For all the individual warmth and generosity of its citizens, the US is organised on a ruthlessly competitive principle: in life there are winners and losers.

The former enjoy rich rewards, the latter are consigned to voiceless oblivion. It is the difference between the ever-expanding suburbs and the blighted inner-cities. All too often it is the difference between having white skin and black.

Trapped in Bayview

Three years ago, I drove 100 miles due south of Washington to Bayview, Virginia. I found a collection of 50 sagging tin-roof shacks dotted along a rutted track. Sharecropper homes built by freed slaves.

There was no indoor plumbing - residents drew their water from wheezing hand pumps. Sewage from outdoor privies was slowly poisoning the local ground water. The people of Bayview were trapped.

A house in Bayview
The poor in the US are "consigned to voiceless oblivion"
Local, state and federal government had ignored them for generations; left them with crumbling homes, failed schools and menial jobs.

One resident, Alice, took me out to Bayview's overgrown cemetery. Amid the weeds we found a crude unmarked cross - the forgotten grave of an African-American slave.

"How far have we really come?", Alice wondered out loud. Quite frankly Alice, most Americans don't give a damn.

Fundamentally important questions about race, poverty, and equality have all but disappeared from the national political debate. Washington politics, with its swill of corporate money, seems more than ever disconnected from the land beyond.

This is a country full of decent people with their eyes fixed on a narrow horizon. Family, church and community, that is the mantra of middle America.

A different country

Or it was until 11 September 2001. Those 19 fanatics destroyed so much in a matter of minutes. Some 3,000 people murdered. Buildings, emblematic of America's global reach, turned to dust.

And something less tangible was fractured too. No longer could Americans sustain complacent indifference to the world beyond their own shining seas.

I was in Nicaragua when the Twin Towers came crashing down. I flew to Northern Mexico, and in the small hours of 12 September I crossed the border into Laredo, Texas. Sometimes the cliches are valid - it was like coming back to a different country.

I hired a car and began to drive the almost 2,000 miles back to Washington DC. Houston, Baton Rouge, Atlanta, Charlotte, the route is still fresh in my mind. At every rest-stop I would talk to Americans making similar cross-country journeys to be close to loved ones amid the national swell of anguish.

The rhetoric of annihilation came easily to the lips of many of the people I met. "Whoever did it, we gotta nuke them," one guy said in a Wendy's in Alabama.

"They say they most likely came out of Afghanistan," said another. "You know what we should do with Afghanistan? Level it into a parking lot."

The pain and the rage were understandable. But also striking was the ignorance. Most people acknowledged they had never before heard of Afghanistan or Bin Laden.

War on terrror

Nor could most of my fellow travellers see any possible connection to American actions in Saudi Arabia, Israel, or any other far flung corner of the world. One plaintive cry found a national echo: "Why do they hate us so?"

George Bush
George Bush says he is winning the war on terror
Ten months on, what has changed? Well, American military might has blasted Bin Laden, and his hate-filled cronies, out of Afghanistan.

President Bush says he is winning the war on terror.

But still this president, and his people, are making me uneasy. There is a new engagement with the outside world, it is true, but the American message boils down to this: "You're either with us or against us".

In the fight with the ruthless killers of al-Qaeda, I am happy to inhabit this black and white world. But what about the grey areas. When it comes to policy on Israel, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Iraq, can I have faith that my interests, my values, will precisely match those of Uncle Sam?

And what about those global issues - Kyoto, war crimes courts, and all the rest. Why does the US refuse to play by international rules?

See also:

14 Apr 02 | Country profiles
03 Jul 02 | Americas
10 Jun 98 | Americas
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