"German engineering, Swiss innovation, American nothing" - Advertising slogan used on a billboard in South Africa by Daimler to promote its Smart "forfour" compact car
In June 2004, I was visiting London with my daughter Orly, and one evening we went to see the play Billy Elliot at a theater near Victoria Station. During intermission, I was standing up, stretching my legs in the aisle next to my seat, when a stranger approached and asked me, "Are you Mr. Friedman?" When I nodded yes, he introduced himself: "My name is Emad Tinawi. I am a Syrian-American working for Booz Allen," the consulting firm. Tinawi said that while he disagreed with some of the columns I had written, particularly on the Middle East, there was one column he especially liked and still kept.
"Which one?" I asked with great curiosity.
"The one called 'Where Birds Don't Fly,'" he said. For a moment, I was stumped. I remembered writing that headline, but I couldn't remember the column or the dateline. Then he reminded me: It was about the new - post-9/11 - U.S. consulate in Istanbul, Turkey.
For years, the U.S. consulate in Istanbul was headquartered in the Palazzo Corpi, a grand and distinctive old building in the heart of the city's bustling business district, jammed between the bazaars, the domed mosques, and the jumble of Ottoman and modern architecture. Built in 1882, and bought by the U.S. government twenty-five years later, Palazzo Corpi was bordered on three sides by narrow streets and was thoroughly woven into the fabric of Istanbul life. It was an easy place for Turks to get a visa, to peruse the library, or to engage with an American diplomat.
But as part of the general security upgrade for U.S. embassies and consulates in the post-9/11 world, it was decided to close the consulate at Palazzo Corpi, and in June 2003 a new U.S. consulate was opened in Istinye, an outlying district about twelve miles away from the center of the city. "The new 22-acre facility - nearly 15 times as big as the old consulate - was built on a solid rock hill," a Federal Times article reported (April 25, 2005), adding that "State now requires buildings to have protective walls that are at least 100 feet away from embassies and consulates. Those walls and barriers also must protect against explosions and ramming attacks from vehicles, and they must be difficult to climb. Guard booths are placed at the perimeter of facilities, and windows and doors are bulletproof and resist forced entries. The new buildings are also strong enough to resist most earthquakes and bombs."
They are also strong enough to deter most visitors, friends, and allies. In fact, when I first set eyes on the new consulate in 2005, what struck me most was how much it looked like a maximum-security prison - without the charm. All that was missing was a moat filled with alligators and a sign that said in big red letters: "Attention! You are now approaching the U.S. consulate in Istanbul. Any sudden movements and you will be shot without warning. all visitors welcome."
They could have filmed the Turkish prison movie Midnight Express there.
But here's a hard truth: Some U.S. diplomats are probably alive today thanks to this fortress. Because on November 20, 2003, as President George W. Bush was in London meeting with then prime minister Tony Blair, and about six months after the new U.S. consulate in Istanbul had been opened, Turkish Muslim terrorists detonated truck bombs at the HSBC bank and the British consulate in Istanbul, killing thirty people, including Britain's consul general, and wounding at least four hundred others. The bomb-ravaged British mission was just a short walk from the Palazzo Corpi.
One of the terrorists captured after the attack reportedly told Turkish police that his group had wanted to blow up the new U.S. consulate, but when they checked out the facility in Istinye, they found it impregnable. A senior U.S. diplomat in Istanbul told me more of the story: According to Turkish security officials, the terrorist said the new U.S. consulate was so secure, "they don't let birds fly" there. I never forgot that image: It was so well guarded they don't even let birds fly there . . .
(That point was reinforced on July 9, 2008, when Turkish police outside the consulate killed three terrorists apparently trying to breach its walls.)
Tinawi and I swapped impressions about the corrosive impact such security restrictions were having on foreigners' perceptions of America and on America's perceptions of itself. As an Arab-American, he was clearly bothered by this, and he could tell from my column that I was too.
Because a place where birds don't fly is a place where people don't mix, ideas don't get sparked, friendships don't get forged, stereotypes don't get broken, collaboration doesn't happen, trust doesn't get built, and freedom doesn't ring. That is not the kind of place we want America to be. That is not the kind of place we can afford America to be. An America living in a defensive crouch cannot fully tap the vast rivers of idealism, innovation, volunteerism, and philanthropy that still flow through our nation. And it cannot play the vital role it has long played for the rest of the world - as a beacon of hope and the country that can always be counted on to lead the world in response to whatever is the most important challenge of the day. We need that America - and we need to be that America - more than ever today.
This is a book about why.
... Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution - And How It Can Renew America, Thomas L. Friedman