"It's a real 9/11 day," a confirmed Manhattanite said on a stroll through the gentle warmth and sparkling clarity of a summer taking its leave. There was no trace of irony or of artifice in that celebration of climatic beauty now heartbreaking by association.
The world's most successful politicians and diplomats are no fools: They choose this moment in mid-to-late September to strut their stuff on the splendid stages of the United Nations and the hotel ballrooms of this great, glittering city.
But this year's opening of the U.N. General Assembly underlined the fact that even for top politicians and diplomats -- the global great and good -- things are not what they seem or what they used to be in the increasingly dysfunctional family of nations.
Their traditional speeches, banquets and competitive networking were overshadowed by savage new displays of terrorism from the Middle East and Central Asia. The bullets and bombs of Beslan, Jerusalem and Kabul were spaced around Internet video clips from Iraq of foreign hostages being executed or forced to plead for their lives on camera.
The diplomats and politicians inevitably seemed irrelevant in the face of such horrors. At times they resembled characters in an Edgar Allan Poe story who feast while the plague stalks outside the walls.
Hostage taking is an ancient tactic. But the modern terrorists' understanding of the needs and opportunities of the unedited media networks of the 21st century gives the practice an immediate dimension that governments have been slow to comprehend or contain.
Officials in Paris, Rome, Washington, Baghdad and elsewhere stoutly assert they will not negotiate with terrorists, even as they quietly do what they can to buy time for the captives. That is understandable. If governments say otherwise, they give kidnappers the upper hand and the incentive to strike again and again.
But the hostage takers of this new age are not really interested in negotiating with governments. They force their captives to do the work for them by swaying public opinion through the instant media of the Internet, supportive Arab satellite television networks and cable news.
To crack the national wills of the United States and its coalition partners in Iraq, terrorist gangs now take, kill or spare hostages on the basis of nationality and of foreign policy. Their goal is to turn nation against nation. They would divide and incapacitate international organizations that do not yield to their brand of Islamist totalitarianism.
They follow closely in the footsteps of Osama bin Laden, who once dreamed of bringing down the U.N. headquarters building as well as the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. But instead of wrecking it, the Iraq-based terrorist gangs plot to frighten the organization and its member states into abandoning Iraq.
Unfortunately, they may be closer to that goal than they were at the last General Assembly opening. A year ago success did not seem implausible for the U.S.-led coalition. That in turn facilitated efforts to overcome the deep rift between the United States and its partners abroad, especially in Europe.
On the surface, those efforts continue. France's amiable new foreign minister, Michel Barnier, told me here that he hopes to visit Washington four times a year in search of improved relations. "We are partners in a definitive alliance, one that is not open to question," he said.
His words were backed up shortly afterward when France dropped its once-firm opposition to allowing "any NATO flag in Iraq" by agreeing to the establishment of a NATO training facility in or near Baghdad. But along with Germany, Spain and Belgium, France refused to contribute trainers or funding to what will be an a la carte alliance mission.
"The transatlantic rift is part of the woodwork now," another European foreign minister said. "We don't even talk about it. That means there is no new shouting. But it also means we are not closing the gaps."
International cooperation becomes more difficult as an image of impending U.S. failure in Iraq is spread by the awful deeds of the car bombers, hostage takers and throat slitters who have congregated in Iraq's Sunni heartland. Their shows of horror blot out not only diplomacy at the United Nations but also reporting on the admirable stability of northern Iraq's Kurdish areas and the relative progress in most cities in the Shiite south.
It does no more good to blame the media than to blame the weather. Neither will change just because U.S. and interim Iraqi officials complain, as they increasingly do. It will take urgent, visible success in combating this new-age terrorism to stop the fragmentation of the family of nations.