There has been a lot of discussion of the ramp-up of US embassy security since 9/11. Generally, the fear is that US embassies increasingly look like bunkers. They are being moved far away from downtowns. They are surrounded by loads of police, military, and barbed wire.
The Seoul one was quite an experience. I needed more passport pages, so off I went. It was frightening. There were multiple layers of security, blast doors, and US and Korean military and police with automatic weapons and body armor all over the place, including the SWAT tanks in my picture above. To boot, cell phones were confiscated, and there were the ubiquitous cameras. I imagine if I wrote more about it, they would be miffed over this post.
It was a depressing experience. I am with Thomas Friedman on this issue of US openness post-9/11. I think this stuff just sends a terrible image to the world about an open society gone loopy. 9/11 abetted the worst instincts of the national security state, and I fear we are moving down an Israeli path toward a barracks democracy with gates and locks all over the place. But this is not what open societies look like. Nor is it what we should want. Who wants barbed wire and cops with rifles at the mall? This is Bin Laden’s real victory – the installation of paranoia in the US. And I fear it will take decades to undo. The 1990s seems like such a paradise by comparison.
And I am not sure all this is necessary. The US has not in fact been targeted that much since 9/11. As John Mueller noted years ago, a lot of this has been overblown. I recall reading somewhere that you are more likely to be hit by lightning – twice – that killed in a terrorist incident. And what terrorism there has been has not been Bin Laden-style plots, but wacky rogues like the underwear bomber or the Fort Hood shooter. It is unlikely that all these walls could have stopped them.
Visiting our embassy was a genuine shock. It certainly didn’t look like America. It reminded me of those execrable gate-communities that fill California and subdivide people against themselves. This doesn’t look like homeland security. It looks like Israel, Pakistan or South Korea in the cold war – democracies under siege and paranoid. This is exactly the sort of freedom-reducing militarization the Founding Fathers warned about in instances of long wars and huge standing armies. This needs to be unwound sometime soon for the health of our democracy.