Americans woke up yesterday and tried to make some sense of Tuesday's apocalyptic events. But for now, says Christopher Hitchens, the question they are asking is how - not why.
One day into the post-World Trade Centre era, and the question "how" is still taking precedence over the question "why". At the presidential level, the two questions appear to be either crudely synthesised or plain confused, since George Bush has taken to describing the mass murder in New York and Washington DC as "not just an act of terrorism but an act of war". This strongly implies that he knows who is responsible; an assumption for which he doesn't care to make known the evidence. Instant opinion polls show the same cognitive dissonance at the mass level. Most people, when asked if they agree with the president about the "war" proposition, reply in the affirmative. But in follow-up questions, they counsel extreme caution about retaliation "until all the facts are in". This means, in ordinary words, that they have not the least idea whether they are at war or not.
Over the years since the seizure of the American embassy in Tehran in 1979, the public has become tolerably familiar with the idea that there are Middle Easterners of various shades and stripes who do not like them. The milestones of this - the marine barracks in Beirut, the Gulf war, the destruction of PanAm flight 101 - actually include a previous attack on the WTC in 1993. And on that occasion, the men convicted of the assault turned out to have backgrounds in a western-sponsored guerrilla war - actually a jihad - in Afghanistan.
Osama bin Laden had pretty good name-recognition among American news consumers even before Tuesday's trauma. He's already survived a cruise-missile attack ordered by President Clinton in 1999 (in the same cycle of attacks that destroyed a Sudanese aspirin factory in the supposed guise of a nerve-gas facility). Bin Laden is perhaps unlikely to die in his bed, but his repeated identification as a "Saudi millionaire" - we thought the Saudi Arabians were on our side - makes consistency in demonisation rather difficult; the image somehow doesn't compute.
My friend Hussein Ibish of the Arab-American anti-discrimination committee tells me that there have already been cases of random violence against Arab-owned shops. But on the whole, it's been remarkable to see how such crude response has been kept to a minimum. The television repeatedly shows film of Palestinian youths applauding the attacks in New York, but instantly "balances" it with a calm and reasoned appeal from the telegenic Dr Hanan Ashrawi. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's Tuesday evening press conference in Manhattan - one of his very best and almost the first occasion on which any hard information was provided to the public - was notable in the same way. He tersely promised extra police protection to Arab and Muslim citizens, and dismissed any thought of vigilantism.
With cellphones still bleeping piteously from under the rubble, it probably seems indecent to most people to ask if the United States has ever done anything to attract such awful hatred. Indeed, the very thought, for the present, is taboo. Some senators and congressmen have spoken of the loathing felt by certain unnamed and sinister elements for the freedom and prosperity of America, as if it were only natural that such a happy and successful country should inspire envy and jealousy. But that is the limit of permissible thought.
In general, the motive and character of the perpetrators is shrouded by rhetoric about their "cowardice" and their "shadowy" character, almost as if they had not volunteered to immolate themselves in the broadest of broad blue daylight. On the campus where I am writing this, there are a few students and professors willing to venture points about United States foreign policy. But they do so very guardedly, and it would sound like profane apologetics if transmitted live. So the analytical moment, if there is to be one, has been indefinitely postponed.
In any case, the question of "how" is for the moment the more riveting one. Did the murderers have accomplices within the airport security systems? Have there been "sleepers" here for years? How did the coordination work? How near did we come to losing the White House? And - more nerve-rackingly - has all the venomous energy been spent in this one climactic assault?
During the cold war, it was often said that the United States faced an unsleeping foe that was "godless". I don't think it's sufficiently recognised how important this one word was, and how much it is missed. The holy warriors, as these seem to be, are an entirely different proposition. The United States as a country has no fixed position on Islamic fundamentalism. It has used it as an ally, as well as discovered it as an enemy. It could not bomb Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates, even if it found conclusive proof that the hijackers and assassins had actually trained there. So what does the president mean when he says so portentously that "we shall make no distinction between the terrorists and those who harbour them"? It looks like a distinction without a difference, and gives a momentary impression of being decisive, while actually only confusing the issue.
As I write, fighter planes are the only craft in the sky over New York and Washington, and indeed, the rest of the country. The National Guard is on the streets. The Atlantic and Pacific coasts are being ostentatiously patrolled by large and reassuring Navy vessels. Not only does this deployment do absolutely no good today (it has about the same effect as the newly imposed ban on kerbside baggage check-in at airports), but it would have made absolutely no difference if it had started last Sunday.
Yes, it does give the impression that we are "at war", all right. But being on manoeuvres is not the same as warfare, and "preparedness" and "vigilance" are of little value if they contribute to the erection of a Maginot Line in the mind.
Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair.