The good, the bad and the ugly americans
I am conscious of the fact that I tend to present America in a less than flattering light. The Greatest Nation on Earth does not come through in these columns as the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave.
So let me say at once that there are things about America that I greatly love and admire.
In no particular order, these are: popular music, including Elvis, the Eagles, Bruce Springsteen, Gershwin, Dolly Parton and Ray Charles (but excluding 50 Cent); the movies (nowhere else comes close to the genius of Hollywood); baseball (especially the Boston Red Sox, now on their way to the World Series); writers too numerous to mention; the best (but, please God, not the worst!) of American television; satirists like Jon Stewart, Bill Maher and Stephen Colbert; diners, led by the Grand Canyon in Montague Street; Central Park in the spring and fall; the Brooklyn Heights Promenade; the Painted Desert; Yellowstone Park; the Hudson River at the Tappan Zee Bridge; Boston's Beacon Hill District (superior to anything in Georgian Dublin); downtown Washington DC (and, deeper down, the DC Metro); the San Francisco waterfront and the California Wine Country.
I could go on. And I haven't even mentioned friends and family. But let the above serve as the case for the defence, which now rests.
The problem is that since my arrival, on August 23, 2001, a lot of bad things have happened, and they're getting worse.
America always had crime, sleaze and vice. That was part of its charm. Think of the Sopranos or the Godfather. Out of the stench of blood and corruption came forth art.
But even Al Capone would be shocked by today's boondoggles. The Administration is driven by greed; government agencies and big business are rife with profiteering; the armed forces are a rabble; the police are respected mainly by those who regard them as a shield against the poor, the hopeless and the depraved.
Do I exaggerate? Consider the following:
In Sunday's New York Times, the columnist Frank Rich (who stands head and shoulders above most of his British counterparts), wrote about the occupation of Iraq not as the strategic and every day disaster we all know it to be, but as a sink of corruption that threatens to destroy the United States.
He starts off with the story of Charles D Riechers, the number two procurement officer for the US Air Force, who was brought in to clean up the mess left behind by his predecessor, Darleen Druyun, jailed for corruption in 2004. Sadly, it didn't take long for Riechers to get his own snout in the trough, and when he was exposed he killed himself, turning on his car engine in the garage of his Virginia home.
Rich moves on from this sordid, yet poignant, tale to a consideration of the total scope of corrupt and suspect practises that have characterised both the Administration and defence and security contractors in Iraq for the last four years.
The extent of the larceny and graft associated with Operation Enduring Freedom is overwhelming, running into many, many billions of dollars. It is as if Milo Minderbender from Catch 22 had been placed in charge of the whole shooting match. No one knows how much money has been stolen and how many lives have been lost on all sides of the conflict due to the criminal behaviour of officials, trigger-happy soldiers and lawless mercenaries.
As you would expect, there are still a few good men, but they seem to be getting fewer by the day. "I cannot support a mission that leads to corruption, human rights abuse and liars," Colonel Ted Westhusing, a senior aide to General David Petraeus (the man in charge of military operations in Iraq), wrote shortly before shooting himself in 2005. "I am sullied."
So are we all.
But here's another example, closer to home. I quote from an exclusive in Monday's New York Post, by reporter Murray Weiss.
"The number of NYPD cops using drugs, stealing property - even from the dead - and committing other acts of corruption, including extorting sex from female suspects, spiked sharply last year, according to a confidential NYPD report.
"The astonishing wrongdoing included everything from cops soliciting sex in exchange for overlooking crimes to stealing credit cards from the homes of dead people to hiring a hit man to commit murder."
Note that we're not even talking about people being beaten up or shot in error. That's something else. A total of 114 officers were handcuffed and taken away last year. Drug use rose by 138%. Allegations of fraud went up 85%. The number of officers stripped of their guns and badges and placed in jobs where they did not come into contact with the public soared from 137 to 212.
It seems like the NYPD is as busy these days investigating its own as it is arresting the so-called criminal class.
Meantime, President George W Bush, who last week vetoed a Bill that would have extended state health care to millions of uninsured children, tells us everything's fine and dandy and getting better by the day.
Well, Mr President, it ain't.