What ails America today? Is the world's only superpower in decline? When you live in America, these worries are as common as moaning about unreliable trains or the National Health Service in Britain. And yet, in recent weeks there was a peculiar urgency and a sombre tone to the question, detected whether you were walking between the glittering skyscrapers of New York or along the grand avenues of Washington.
How one remembers a past incident as a moment with deep and decisive implications for the future is always a marker for the inner workings of a society. The ninth anniversary of 9/11 was marked by the usual memorials and prayers at the sites where the planes struck.
Something was different, however. The demonstrations a few blocks from Ground Zero were as audible as the political and religious tensions were tangible. The unity was suddenly split by a sharply partisan undercurrent. The photographs of victims were being held by relatives, the reciting of names, the tears, were intermingled with the intemperate debate over plans to build a Muslim community centre and mosque two blocks from Ground Zero. Suddenly, the day was no longer only about loss — of nearly 3,000 lives, of a sense of security, of America's shared values of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness — but about politics.
Whether the country is indeed going anywhere at the moment was the question for some of its most influential columnists when Newsweek magazine published a list of the "100 best countries of the world" — and the US ended up a disappointing 11th. Finland came top, with Germany 12th, Britain 14th and France 16th. Such lists are inherently imprecise and often downright silly — there must be some reason why millions of immigrants flock to the US, Britain and Germany while Finland is hardly a desired destination. Yet journalists love these lists.