It was good to see the Stars and Stripes on the harbour bridge on Wednesday, good to talk to a man on the Voice of America when he called to ask what it all meant in New Zealand.

I said it brought home the vulnerability of societies such as ours. He wanted to know what had been in the newspaper, what radio and TV were doing, and the tenor of the conversations I was hearing. I told him some of our views, not all.

I didn't mention comments I heard from one or two that, really, all that had happened on September 11 last year was an American experience of something many other countries have suffered, and we didn't get caught up in sympathy for them.

I didn't mention it because it seemed obtuse. We saw, on television, the planes scything into the most distinctive buildings on the world's most familiar skyline. We saw people jumping from the towers and tried to imagine the horror of those in the hijacked planes when they had realised where they were going.


We are human, we respond to what we see. And, yes, we feel death more acutely when it happens to people we are close to. I wonder about those who decry selective sympathy. Do they really possess the universal empathy of saints or do they not feel much at all?

Like all English-speaking people, particularly in the new world, we feel a kindred spirit with Americans. Their flag looked right (or as right as a flag can be on an arch) fluttering at half-mast on the harbour bridge.

So I told the radio man we were looking back with sympathy but looking forward with somewhat different feelings. "What do you mean?" he asked.

"Well, quite a number of us, including the Government here and this newspaper," I said, "worry that the response to September 11 might be getting diverted down a blind alley with talk of an attack on Iraq." I hope that survived his editing.

It might have done: American broadcasters had a better perspective at the anniversary than they did a year ago. One commentator on CNN dared to report that outside New York there was no sense of a nation at war.

Even during the height of the action in Afghanistan, he said, there had been no call for the reserves, taxes had not risen, there were no ration books, none of the privations older people had known in World War II.

If the same realism is filtering into their Government, it might be ready to dispense with wars on phantoms and to get down to the task of policing the world much better.

It is a less glamorous job than those that can be done with the latest military hardware. It is a job for intelligence mainly, and foreign intelligence is not the Americans' strong suit.

Their officials struggle to understand even New Zealanders when it comes to our anti-nuclear pretensions. They've never understood it's a matter of simple, cussed national pride, not genuine pacifism, and that their response merely feeds it. The exalted reputation of the CIA owes a huge debt to those who imagine it is behind every misfortune to befall the political left anywhere.

If the CIA was half as good as the paranoid suppose, Saddam Hussein would have disappeared after his first use of gas, Osama bin Laden been captured before his second embassy bombing and Afghanistan relieved of the Taleban years ago.

I've wondered about the calibre of American intelligence since the first time I saw the Soviet Union. It was plain as a pothole the place didn't work. It was living a lie.

The country was decrepit, badly constructed, ill-maintained. Almost nothing could be relied on to work as it should, the idea of service was unknown, nobody cared for property or much else, the people were cynical, particularly towards the fictions they received from the official media.

It was nothing like the ruthlessly efficient social system the Cold War had led me to expect, any more than it was making the progress Ken Douglas and Bill Andersen used to report when they came home from their frequent visits.

Once Gorbachev came to power and allowed free speech, the whole edifice began to collapse from its internal rot. Yet US intelligence reported, and Washington believes to this day, that the Soviet Union collapsed mainly because it could not match Ronald Reagan's military spending.

You still read that from time to time in the Economist and other good newspapers. It is surprising how few people can ever have seen the Soviet Union except from the comfort of embassies, Kremlin receptions and the foreign correspondents' clubs.

Secrecy, I suspect, cloaks a great deal of incompetence in the world of espionage. Intelligence officers spend much of their time at embassy desks, reading the local newspapers and trawling official reports.

That's easier than getting down on your haunches with strange men who wear sheets and are forever answering a call to prayer. The CIA was seriously deficient in "human intelligence", according to the US Congressional inquiry into September 11.

The significance of that date may turn out to be that it marks the moment when the US finally lost its instinctive isolation. It might never again be difficult to convince American voters that distant conflicts can be a direct threat to them.

If the world is to be better policed after September 11, the US needs to engage not just distant trouble-makers but also its allies. It needs to enlist better intelligence agencies than it can build. But it will probably take a bigger President than this one to work that out.