Yesterday in New York, it was the same cloudless blue sky as eleven years ago. The anniversary of the 9/11 attacks – like the day itself – was one of those immaculate early fall days. The heat of the summer has abated and the city sparkles in warm sunshine.
Walking to a meeting in the financial district past the Freedom Tower built on the site of the World Trade Centre, New York seemed quieter than usual. Many people had stayed at home or were attending memorial services. The atmosphere was reflective and respectful, not sombre or morbid. And generally New York’s mood at the moment reflects the weather: bright and fresh. Indeed, the city seems to defy economic gravity. America’s recovery may be anaemic and the financial services industry – the lifeblood of New York prosperity – is still spooked by Eurozone fears. But walking down Fifth Avenue you have little sense of the hardship faced by millions of people across the country. This city hums.
At the end of Wall Street is the magnificent statue of George Washington outside Federal Hall. The statue is erected on the spot where he was inaugurated as the first president of the new United States. Nowadays he is surrounded by the scruffy remnants of the Occupy Wall Street protest and it is fascinating to speculate on what the father of the nation would make of the modern United States.
He might be less surprised by the Occupy movement than he would by Wall Street itself. Citizen activism was what originally propelled him to power although he might not recognise the now lone protester – a skinny man with an even skinnier dog – as a son of the revolution. But Wall Street as a projection of America’s global status would perhaps not be what he expected when he assumed office.
He never envisaged America as an industrial, financial or military superpower. He and Thomas Jefferson saw an independent America as an agrarian commonwealth running its own affairs and minding its own business. That people might have executed a plan conceived on the other side of the world to bring terror to this tip of Manhattan would surely have baffled him.
What would he make of the political theatre that is the run up to the presidential election? The early days of the republic had their fair share of political rough and tumble and he would certainly have recognised the resistance to big central government that is a recurring theme in the political debate. But he might still be taken aback by the extent to which politics has become a full contact sport in this country. This election, more than any other, seems to be intensely gladiatorial in both tone and substance, with rival camps and media pundits baying for blood like the audience at the Coliseum. It is a great spectator sport but it is not for the squeamish.
As I write this, news is coming through of a lethal attack on US diplomatic staff in Libya. This is a timely reminder that however preoccupied this country is right now with itself, it has become and will remain intimately involved in the Middle East and beyond. America has learned the hard way that it is impossible to build other people’s countries in its own image but every visit to New York reminds me of the extraordinary energy and momentum that America can generate to fix itself.
Just around the corner from Federal Hall, an Amish choir is singing hymns to commemorate the victims of 9/11. This choir and the statue of Washington stand in stark contrast to the modernity of New York’s financial district. But they also represent a continuum between a nation that was formed in exceptional circumstances and a country that still – for all its problems – has the capacity to reinvent itself. For that, I think George Washington would be very proud.