I have just returned from visiting the US Embassy here in London with my six-year old daughter Lily and my ex-wife. We went there to place a bouquet of flowers to honour the thousands of innocent people who died in the attacks against America this week and to offer our support for their families and the American people.
As we joined the long silent line of hundreds of people stretching round Grosvenor Square in the mid afternoon sun, I pointed out to my daughter the plaque on the wall of the building opposite, recording that Gen. Dwight Eisenhower was based there during World War 2.
It was from here that, sixty years ago, he built up the force of millions of US soldiers that lead to D Day, the invasion of Occupied Europe in1944, and the ultimate defeat of Hitler and the Nazis.
It was the greatest military force the world has ever seen.
As we moved slowly closer to the entrance to the square, where the embassy has erected a white marquee housing the books of condolence for the public to sign, I reflected that in the days and months ahead, once again the world could very possibly be required to assemble a huge military force.
As we came under the gaze of the huge bronze eagle on the roof of the embassy building across the street, on the pavement opposite, a group of half a dozen Arabic looking men had gathered near the statue of Eisenhower and were looking towards the queue.
As I looked at them, I experienced an emotion I had never felt before. As I looked at this group of strangers…somebody’s fathers, somebody’s sons, middle-aged men and younger men in their twenties, I felt a totally unfamiliar emotion, so unfamiliar, so unsettling, that it was a few seconds before I was able to identify what it was. But then I knew what it was.
It was hate. I hated them. In less than three days I had become what I had spent my whole life fighting; I had become a racist.
I was shocked and immediately loathed myself for feeling this most horrible of all emotions.
I felt dirty, unclean. In that split second of revulsion…and self-revulsion, I felt as if my lungs too were full of that same huge, choking cloud of dust that, mesmerised, I had watched, as thousands in the streets around the collapsed Twin Towers fled before it.
I looked down at my daughter. She was flipping a coin up into the air. “Heads or tails Daddy?” she asked. “Tails” I said. She looked, very slowly, under her clasped hands. “Heads Daddy! You lose!”
I realised I wasn’t seeing these people any more as people. After the events of the last three days, I was no longer capable of seeing them as the ordinary people in the street that we all pass hundreds of times a day, every day of our lives. Instead,I was seeing them now, automatically, as a part of the evil- as if, because they were Arabs, they naturally had to support the monsters that perpetrated the horror of the World Trade Centre, the Pentagon, and that left the passengers and crew of United Flight 93 dead in a crater in a field in Pennsylvania.
There have been many thousands of losses suffered by fathers and mothers, wives and husbands, sons and daughters, in the last few terrible days. But, amongst the tears I have shed staring at the television during the 16 hours a day I have been watching this unbearable tragedy unfold, I have come today to realise that I, too, suffered a loss – albeit one of infinitesimally smaller magnitude, on the scale of human grief, than that experienced by many thousands of people across America, here in the UK, and in dozens of other countries across the World since 8.48 am on Tuesday morning.
After a lifetime as a liberal baby boomer, I too had finally learned to hate.
As I write these words, I am looking once more at my TV screen, and the nineteen names and pictures of the hijackers which the FBI has just released. As I look at their photographs, I realise one other thing: I hate them for making me hate.
I hope and pray that I never again experience the feelings I felt this afternoon, because, if I do, I will have become like them: and only then will they have won.