Wednesday, June 01, 2005

America's DNA

Thomas Friedman has an interesting article about the effects of the 9/11 attacks on America's soft power:
I worry that 20 years from now [people will write about] 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."

In part it was a conversation with friends in London, one a professor at Oxford, another an investment banker, both of whom spoke about the hassles, fingerprinting, paperwork and costs that they, pro-American professionals, now must go through to get a visa to the U.S.

In part it was a recent chat with the folks at Intel about the obstacles they met trying to get visas for Muslim youths from Pakistan and South Africa who were finalists for this year's Intel science contest. And in part it was a conversation with M.I.T. scientists about the new restrictions on Pentagon research contracts - in terms of the nationalities of the researchers who could be involved and the secrecy required - that were constricting their ability to do cutting-edge work in some areas and forcing intellectual capital offshore. The advisory committee of the World Wide Web recently shifted its semiannual meeting from Boston to Montreal so as not to put members through the hassle of getting visas to the U.S.

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.

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."

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.

Thomas Friedman seems to have somewhat of a blind spot with regard to the Bush administration. He supported invading Iraq before the war, on the grounds that defeating Saddam would transform the region. After we invaded, he started blasting the Bush Administration for failing to manage the war in a way that would set the stage for this transformation. The question is, why was he surprised? Bush never expressed any interest in using the invasion as a lever to transform the region. And if Friedman wanted to get a pretty good indication of how Bush would manage a war, all he had to do was look at Afghanistan.

His proposal for a national commission shows a similar blind spot. What does the Bush Administration care about such long term effects? This is the Administration that managed to sour our trans-Atlantic relationships over Iraq. It doesn't take a commission to tell us that Guantanamo is hurting America's image abroad.

But if his proposed solution is wrong, his observations are interesting, particularly regarding the conflict between security and openness. I would think that creating architects could find ways to make our embassies more secure without creating the effect Friedman describes, at least for new buildings. Retrofitting an existing building, as was apparently done in London, is harder. As for visas, I don't know how much security the new procedures actually provide. I would guess that a determined terrorist likely to succeed in gaining entry to the United States in despite the new rules.


Post a Comment

<< Home