Friday, September 17, 2004

US Eyesore

Interesting piece in the New York Times about the US Embassy in London (here registration required). Well, I say interesting, but for anyone who's had the misfortune of wandering through Grosvenor Square at any point in the last three years every point the article makes is blindingly obvious:

"It is impossible to miss the American Embassy, hulking menacingly in genteel Mayfair with all the subtlety of a man wearing sunglasses and body armor to tea at the Ritz."

What is interesting is the fact that this has been noticed by a major newspaper in the US itself (even if it is the supposedly left-wing Times). Everyone is a bit miffed at the US at the moment, and it must be said that the security measures in place round the US Embassy seem somewhat more appropriate to some kind of warzone than the capital city of America's closest ally. It's been three years, guys - time to redecorate...

This and this is what Grosvenor Square used to look like; this is the Embassy pre-9/11 (it was pretty ugly then). Perhaps surprisingly, photos of the defences themselves are hard to come by. But this and this is the sight that greets you as soon as you get within a couple of hundred yards of the Embassy.

For our American cousins a quick reminder - we don't really have guns in the UK. The sight of a policeman in a flak jacket and armed with a sub-machinegun in the centre of London only ever used to happen after IRA attacks. To turn the corner and be greeted by one of these guys scares the living hell out of me every time. I always think a bomb's about to go off.

"This is Mayfair, one of the toniest little enclaves in town, where housing prices are in the millions, the streets are thick with luxury-goods stores and "unattractive" is a four-letter word... the scary-looking eyesore in this otherwise elegant area has become, to some, a symbol not just of American vulnerability, but also of its arrogance and excess."

Unfortunately it's not going to change any time soon - according to the head honcho at the Embasssy: "'We have a lease here that's almost 1,000 years long' - it expires in 2953 - 'and we plan to stay until the end of that lease'." Hurrah...

4 Comments:

Blogger Marc said...

I've been to the US Embassy in London and I will grant you, it's far from attractive. In fact, if I'm honest, US Embassies around the world aren't terribly architecturally creative, interesting, or beautiful. Not sure why that is, but I've a suspicion that there are any number of people who would be more than happy to observe that it has something to do with American arrogance or some such thing. And the security is, I'll grant you, more than a little off-putting.

On the other hand, I find the bit about "It's been three years, guys - time to redecorate..." utterly offensive. Frankly, it's precisely that attitude on both sides of the Atlantic and virtually everywhere else in the world pre-9/11 that allowed 9/11, the Madrid bombings, and a host of other terrorist actions to happen in the first place. It was complacence about security.

We're not really worried, I don't think, about Brits with guns. But you might have noted that this very week some wackos without guns got inside the perimeter of the supposedly airtight Buckingham Palace (not for the first time, either) as well as the floor of your Parliament. I'd also note that Britain has its own not insignificant share of Islamic extremists. And I'd note that barely a visit to London by me has gone by without a bomb scare on the Tube. Britain may be our most important ally (by the way, I and virtually every other American I know appreciate that greatly), but if you've been to Washington, you know that we defend our capital city (for better or worse) no less gaudily or ostentatiously than we defend our embassies.

Yes, Mayfair is 'tony.'

But American Embassies have been attacked, as you know, in countries all over the world, and it happens frequently. It is debatable why this occurs (I know, it has to do with that famous American arrogance again), but the fact is it happens.

So please, spare us the sarcasm and self-righteousness. And indulge our paranoia and our desire to protect our diplomats and citizens; our apprehension is not without basis.

9/17/2004 02:20:00 pm  
Blogger megan said...

"'What you see around the building now are measures that have been put in place by the British authorities to deal with what they saw as a potential threat against this facility,' David Johnson, the chargé d'affaires at the embassy, said in an interview."

You skipped this part in your post. And as far as your American cousins go, we have become used to machine guns in our streets/airports only since 9/11. Before that we only saw such guns in European airports. Back in the days when they were being blown up. Here in Zurich only the British and American consulates are guarded at uzi-point and the Swiss bitch about it as well. They are threatening to evict the British consulate... they have no 1000 year lease to protect them.

9/20/2004 04:28:00 pm  
Blogger Nosemonkey said...

Megan - very true, the defensive measures were put in place by the British authorities. This is, of course, largely because there’s no way in hell – even with the British government’s constant attempts to court favour with the US – that American GIs would be allowed to patrol central London with live ammunition and a license to kill. The US Embassy would also have to have the complicity of the local council to set up roadblocks and planning permission to erect barriers outside. So instead, the British taxpayer foots the bill for defending American territory, and valuable police resources are diverted from keeping track of genuine terrorist threats to guard a building which might be the target of one of these threats. (I will also point out that the pressure from the US to provide these security measures was immense – the Houses of Parliament didn’t get anything similar for well over a year after 9/11, despite being at least as much of a target as the US Embassy.)

The US Embassy in London is undoubtedly a high-profile, major target – cause destruction to “the Great Satan” and her key ally with one blow, two birds with one stone and all that. Wherever it may be, it would need defending - no doubt about it. But that was not the point I was trying to make - I was certainly not suggesting that the Ambassador himself should stand at the front door offering garlands of flowers to every approaching suicide bomber.

But the fact nonetheless remains that if the US Embassy weren’t there, such measures wouldn’t be necessary and (as I have pointed out at length elsewhere) these measures would in any case all be largely ineffective in their stated aim.

If the Swiss do evict the British consulate from Zurich, good on them. It would make perfect sense. Why have a definite target in your midst if you can avoid it when there are already so many potential ones? It would enable them to concentrate their resources on more profitable counter-terrorism measures than patrolling perimiter fences and getting itchy trigger-fingers at the approach of anyone with dark skin.

Is it necessary for the US Embassy to have such a high-profile, central location? Why can’t it relocate to one of its many military bases that are scattered around the UK, away from densely populated areas and major flightpaths? It would make it a lot easier to defend in case of attack by land or air. At the moment, it remains highly vulnerable, and is putting thousands of nearby civilians at risk as well. And as for any suggestions that such a move would be bowing to the terrorists, I’d say hiding behind concrete barriers armed with machineguns is just as much of an acknowledgement of the state of fear the Embassy is living in as a move to an air base in Norfolk would be.

I’m certainly not naïve enough to believe that our dear psycho terrorist friends care tuppence about civilian loss of life – September 11th proved that amply – but why invite civilian loss of life if it can be avoided? And, as I have suggested, why cause undue unease amongst the local population when it is terror we are meant to be fighting, and a free society in which we are meant to live?

9/20/2004 05:17:00 pm  
Anonymous -ronnie in new orleans- said...

Why would you want all of the official US presence in England to be military bases? You seem put off by the fact that your own soldiers and police are required to protect the US Embassy. I've got news for you guy. It's the host country's responsibility to protect the embassies on its soil. As far as the undue "pressure" placed on Parliament to armor the site you offer no proof. Much of that pressure is implied by the obvious fact that a successful attack on the US Embassy that could be blamed on any laxness of home nation security would be a huge black eye for the UK . Remember, it wasn't Buckingham Palace that was attacked on 9-11, or even York, it was New York.

My personal opinion as a libertarian is that the US should have only civilian contact on English soil and should maintain the same number of military bases in England that we had in 1812. If this level of contact causes too much civilian and architectural angst amoung the population then we could withdraw completely and do all of our future communication by blog, or teleconference.

Bring on the brave new world.

2/20/2005 09:56:00 pm  

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