America’s DNA- genetic modification needed?
I am not the world’s biggest Tom Friedman fan- I think he writes well and has produced some great works, to be sure, but he often seems more intent on name dropping than providing substance. In his recent column America’s DNA
, however, I’d have to say he has struck a key theme.
The central idea of his piece is that we, America, must be careful about the official image we present to the world, through our words, actions and even our architecture:I worry that 20 years from now some eighth grader will be doing her National History Day project on how America's reaction to 9/11 unintentionally led to an erosion of core elements of American identity. What sparks such dark thoughts on a trip from London to New Delhi?In part it is the awful barriers that now surround the U.S. Embassy in London on Grosvenor Square. "They have these cages all around the embassy now, and these huge concrete blocks, and the whole message is: 'Go away!' " said Kate Jones, a British literary agent who often walks by there. "That is how people think of America now, and it's a really sad thing because that is not your country."
This sentiment is spot-on. Just recently, before departing my last post, I was given a tour of our host nation’s capital building. Several hundred years old, the building had suffered greatly during WWII. It has been refurbished twice since then, and is a shining example of old and new. Thousands of people stand in line for many hours each year to tour the building. I was commenting on the beauty of the building, and the elegance of that country’s embassy in DC to the young intern who was serving as my tour guide when he asked rather bluntly why our embassy was so ugly and outwardly hostile- while not the most diplomatic of questions, he had a point.
Let me set the scene: the embassy is surrounded by a tall, spiked fence. Access is controlled through a fortified box made up of thick steel walls and bullet resistant glass. Several one-ton concrete barriers form a serpentine to slow vehicle entrance and armed local police man check-points leading to the building. Bicyclists are made to dismount and walk past the building. Several abandoned store fronts on either side of the street from the embassy tell the story of the impact of the security on the neighborhood. The effect is ugly, vaguely sinister and not at all welcoming, and unfortunately largely necessary.
The African embassy bombings taught us a lot about the threats to softer targets in what had generally been low threat countries, as far as terrorism is concerned. So we no longer take chances, even in the heart of civilized Old Europe. But as Friedman recognized, we are taking a different kind of chance now. Friedman again:
The other day I went to see the play "Billy Elliot" in London. During intermission, a man approached me and asked, "Are you Mr. Friedman?" When I said yes, he introduced himself - Emad Tinawi, a Syrian-American working for Booz Allen. He told me that while he disagreed with some things I wrote, there was one column he still keeps. "It was the one called, 'Where Birds Don't Fly,' " he said.
I remembered writing that headline, but I couldn't remember the column. Then he reminded me: It was about the new post-9/11 U.S. Consulate in Istanbul, which looks exactly like a maximum-security prison, so much so that a captured Turkish terrorist said that while his pals considered bombing it, they concluded that the place was so secure that even birds couldn't fly there. Mr. Tinawi and I then swapped impressions about the corrosive impact such security restrictions were having on foreigners' perceptions of America. [Note the piece referred to here can be located at The Longbow Papers, Dr. D]
Obviously it is a good thing that the terrorists think twice about bombing the embassies and consulates in which we work. But is there a better way? Friedman thinks so, and puts his faith in that old government stand-by- a commission to study the problem:
Bottom line: We urgently need a national commission to look at all the little changes we have made in response to 9/11 - from visa policies to research funding, to the way we've sealed off our federal buildings, to legal rulings around prisoners of war - and ask this question: While no single change is decisive, could it all add up in a way so that 20 years from now we will discover that some of America's cultural and legal essence - our DNA as a nation - has become badly deformed or mutated?
This would be a tragedy for us and for the world. Because, as I've argued, where birds don't fly, people don't mix, ideas don't get sparked, friendships don't get forged, stereotypes don't get broken, and freedom doesn't ring.
By and large I agree with the idea- someone should indeed be keeping track of the impact our decisions have made. Should it be the government, or academia, or the people themselves in the form of journalism, blogs and correspondence with our elected officials? I favor a blend of the three. In addition, however, we must aggressively continue to get our message out- we do not want to work in prison-like embassies, we do not want to close our doors and shut the valve on the free exchange of visitors and ideas. But we will take the actions necessary to defend ourselves. There is a fine line between protection and isolation, and we are approaching that line bit by bit. If the rest of the world does not want us to completely disengage (and I am not sure that is the case), then we need their help. There can be no doubt that we do indeed have enemies- there is considerable doubt that we have true allies. Exchanges such as Friedman’s are encouraging- but they are not enough. We can only go so far alone in this new chapter of the eternal struggle for survival. I for one live for the day when we can relax the security of our embassies, and birds and ideas can fly through without the threat of terror.
As Friedman notes:
In New Delhi, the Indian writer Gurcharan Das remarked to me that with each visit to the U.S. lately, he has been forced by border officials to explain why he is coming to America. They "make you feel so unwanted now," said Mr. Das. America was a country "that was always reinventing itself," he added, because it was a country that always welcomed "all kinds of oddballs" and had "this wonderful spirit of openness." American openness has always been an inspiration for the whole world, he concluded. "If you go dark, the world goes dark."
Muslim extremists in the ME are poised with one hand on the light switch, and we cannot possibly deter them alone. So Mr. Das, and Mr. Tinawi, and Mr. Friedman, and to my intern friend, know this- our ugly buildings and omnipresent security are not aimed at you, but they will not go away without your, and your nations’, support. Our DNA is intact, and we intend to keep it that way.