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Saturday, 29 September, 2001, 10:57 GMT 11:57 UK
USA: The end of innocence?
Fans wave US flags at a Raiders v Dolphins football game
Displays of patriotism may hide deep anxiety
Tom Carver

Last Saturday, several children in our street, including ours, set up a lemonade stand. A quintessentially American thing to do of course, though none of these six-year-old shopkeepers was actually American.

Pinned to the side of their stand was a crumpled page from an exercise book on which was written "for the victims of the attack".

A steady stream of people passed by shoving money in the plastic cup that represented the till. Some did not wait for their lemonade. Even our local parking warden, a rather fierce black lady, pulled a couple of dollars out of her back pocket.

On Capitol Hill waiting to interview a senator, I talk to her assistant. All Sally can think about is her three-year-old daughter who is across the street in her nursery. Neither her world's nor Sally's is statistically any less safe than it was three weeks ago.

But whenever a police siren sounds, Sally says she has to restrain the impulse to rush over and whisk her daughter away. "I just feel violated," she says quietly.

Victimised

America feels like a person who has been mugged in daylight on a safe street. Her mind is clouded by pain. Her world view dramatically foreshortened.

A man wearing a firefighter jacket cries during a memorial service
Many Americans feel hated - and don't understand why
In Europe and the Middle East people may be able to see why it happened, like we might understand what drives a homeless man to mug.

But as far as Americans are concerned, they were doing nothing that justified such an act. They were simply getting on with their lives when the World Trade towers exploded one still blue morning.

Now there are television programmes and newspaper articles plaintively entitled "Why do they hate us so much?"

People are not in the mood to go shopping, or go to the films. It's not that they're glued to the news any more. They just don't feel like going out.

So much seems inappropriate. They have lost their appetite. Even for sex. Last week, the word "sex" fell from number one subject for online searches, which it has held virtually ever since the internet was invented, to number 17.

A nation depressed

It is staggering to me that one event can depress an entire nation, especially one this big, but that is what it feels like living here. I wanted to speak to someone who felt safe.

Bette Midler sings as clergy watch during a national rally
Celebrities and clergy have tried to reassure people
The eastern seaboard is so absorbed in its own pain, the rest of the country might as well not exist.

I rang Wayne and Jean Weischaar. Wayne runs a farm four miles off the tarmac road in the middle of North Dakota. They are surrounded for hundreds of miles by swaying sea of prairie grassland. Surely they would feel safe.

Jean answered the phone. Jean remembers being taught how to hide under her school desk when she was a kid in case of a nuclear attack.

In the Vietnam war, she and Wayne were courting and Wayne was called up for the reserve. "But it was never as bad as this," she said in her slow Dakotan accent.

Jean was driving to school in Leipzig, a local hamlet, where she works as a teacher, when she heard the news on the car radio. She arrived as the children were getting off the school bus. They had already heard.

A day to remember

She asked her class of 11-year-olds if they wanted to watch the TV. They all said yes. As she turned it on, she told them, "This is one day you will remember for the rest of your lives."

Firefighters console each other as they cry during a memorial service
An entire nation seems depressed
When I asked her why this felt worse than past crises, she said: "In the past we didn't get the news like we do now. It's played again and again."

It occurred to me then that the whole of this country discovered what was happening at the same instant. The senior leaders of the CIA watched the events unfold at the same moment as the sixth graders in the remote farm school in Leipzig.

The opinion polls show most people expect another attack. They stare at strangers in a way they never did before.

Americans can't quite believe they feel this way. I cannot say whether America will recover its past exuberance and whether this is no longer the New World with all the connotations of innocence and optimism that that implies.

But there is no question that America has aged perceptibly in the last three weeks.

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