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Jobs, not wars worry Americans

July 28, 2012


SEAT reclined, enjoying the serene New England coastline with its multitude of marinas, thoughts of anything violent couldn’t have been further from the mind.

Then the Amtrak train we had boarded in Boston for New York City started to slow down. The afternoon sun was low, shining directly into the eyes, nearly blinding. So it wasn’t without squinting that one was able to read the name of the station we had pulled into. It was Bridgeport, Connecticut.

Just another New England town. Nothing memorable. But something was tugging at my memory. What could have been so significant about Bridgeport that it was filed away, no matter how deep, in the memory banks?

Suddenly, it all started to come back.

This was where Faisal Shahzad used to live. It was from here that he had driven a vehicle filled with improvised explosives into Manhattan’s Times Square and left it to cause mayhem on May Day two years ago, before heading to John F. Kennedy Airport to take a one-way flight home to Pakistan.

The vehicle and its lethal cargo were detected in time, neutralised and removed to safety. Faisal Shahzad was tracked down and arrested minutes before he was due to fly off to safety and possibly disappearing in the impenetrable folds of our tribal areas. It isn’t for a columnist to say why the son of a senior officer of the Pakistan Air Force with a wife, two children and a privileged upbringing would do something like that. He did have some financial problems — but don’t we all? One is left wondering what makes such a person tick.

As the train approaches New York City, Manhattan to be precise, one’s eye always strays to where the Twin Towers stood tall all those years ago when one first visited this amazingly vibrant city with its diverse cultures, colours, even attitudes melting into one. Every one here is a New Yorker.

Emerging from Ground Zero, right next to the memorial for the 9/11 victims and where the Towers themselves stood, now rises the tallest under-construction building in this city of skyscrapers: the Freedom Tower, which has got to where it has after over a decade dogged by considerable controversy.

I may have serious issues with US policy, which has battled ‘terrorism’ so that the toll it has itself exacted in terms of human life is far greater than what a homicidal terrorist would hope to exact in his wildest dreams. But I unashamedly love New York. There isn’t a place like this anywhere else. And therefore the fear that some tormented, twisted mind might see the Freedom Tower as a red rag — as a trigger for the hatred that seems to fill so many hearts these days — and as a symbol of American economic power regardless of its current travails. Everyone seems to have far greater ability to inflict pain than do good these days.

By the time you read this we will have watched a play not far from Times Square where Faisal Shahzad sought to rain death on hundreds of civilians who may not have had anything to do with his reported anger at former president Bush over the Iraq war. There is a body of opinion in America today (including the odd voice of some Americans of Pakistani origin) that is gaining momentum as it questions US policies. There are many who are now challenging the legitimacy of drone attacks as a weapon to take out ‘wanted terrorists’ without trial, without due process.

They express disappointment that the Bush legacy has been embraced so heartily by a Democrat, the ‘non-ideological’ Obama. Some claim that as the country’s first black president he has found it difficult to contain the CIA and the Pentagon, preferring to go along with them so his ‘patriotic’ credentials aren’t brought into question.

However, this isn’t to say that this, by any stretch, is the predominant sentiment. Our obsession with the US may be of a different magnitude as it permeates every nook and cranny in the country. Here, the policymaker may wish to have a plan to supply the troops in Afghanistan if there was trouble through Pakistan again.

Planners may have options on the drawing board about what to do if the country that has a hundred or more nuclear warheads starts to implode/fall apart. But the people at large are pre-occupied with the economy. The loss of a job or home is a far more immediate a threat than the one apparently being dealt with thousands of miles away.

The war in Iraq is over and, as far as they know, the ‘boys’ (and girls) in Afghanistan are also coming home. All else is for the Washington DC elite to figure out. So, the Nato supply routes, drone strikes and how best to deal with the terrorism threat is something that doesn’t concern the average American, at this stage at least.

There is very little debate on whether the terrorism threat now is as real as it was some years ago or simply serving a broader strategic goal such as Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction did before the last Gulf War. Nobody wants to know, so nobody is telling.

Although New York had to bear the brunt of the 9/11 attacks and still carries its scars, even here the primary concern remains how to revive sagging markets. The usually affluent Wall Street bankers complain of tough times, smaller bonuses, shrinking disposal income. They don’t say what went wrong: the greed of their lot.

A typically articulate and funny New York cabbie, responding to a question about what impact the economic downturn was having on life in the ever-effervescent Big Apple, said: “When ladies of the night say two for the price of one, things can’t be good. It’s so sad.”

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.