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Americans Abroad and Behind Walls

June 22, 1986|Denis MacShane | Denis MacShane works for the International Metalworkers Federation, a world labor body in Geneva.

GENEVA — Americans are now in a different category from the rest of us, and life at my office in Geneva will never be the same.

The organization I work for rents out most of its six-story building to an American chemical and plastic corporation that operates worldwide.

A few weeks back I arrived to find a security guard patrolling the streets outside with a dog; the guard was demanding to see an ID card that I didn't possess. On the ramp into the underground parking lot was another blue-uniformed man checking all the cars.

As a British citizen who once worked for the BBC as a reporter during the height of the Northern Ireland terrorist bombing campaign on mainland Britain, security checks were nothing new to me.

For the past seven years I have been working in Switzerland, a country that takes security very seriously indeed. Strolling down the deluxe shopping streets of Geneva you can find some of the richest, most famous, most politically controversial people in the world--in every sense, perfect targets for terrorists.

But behind the scenes, discreet yet extremely effective work by the Swiss authorities has kept terrorists at bay. As in London or Paris or Rome--all cities which have known terror attacks in recent years--the inhabitants of Geneva have not allowed concern over terrorism to affect their daily lives, confident that the best way of living in a world of terrorism is not to be intimidated.

Until, that is, the American bombing of Tripoli. Then everything changed.

After the raid on Libya, the local American manager said he had a directive from home to tighten up on security. Would we mind if they paid for guards, instituted a system of ID badges, controlled access to the parking lot and so on?

Who can refuse such a request? And so a nondescript office block in an industrial area far from downtown Geneva is now conspicuously guarded. Even while Switzerland remains terrorist-free, the people employed by this company have been told to take off any stickers from their cars reading "I L.A." or New York or whatever, not to wear T-shirts sporting American slogans, take off pins that have the Stars and Stripes in them, generally avoid any public identification of themselves as American citizens.

The July 4th party, one of the high-spots of Geneva summer life with its barbecues, bands and fireworks, has now been cancelled. Americans have not yet been told to stop patronizing any of the three McDonalds in Geneva but this denial of their identity and citizenship is alarming and, I think, potentially dangerous for America's future.

Alarming, because it is isolating. When one nation's citizens living abroad cannot go openly about their business on a par with local inhabitants, cannot behave in the same way as local people, they become marked off from their neighbors--meaning that nation's relationship with the rest of the world is out of joint.

Usually, these days, it is the Soviets stationed in East Europe who have to live walled-off from the local community. Or, in the old days of empire, colonialists were told to keep away from the natives.

The separation is dangerous because, following the abrupt cancellation of so many tourist trips by Americans, I sense a gap growing between the United States and Europe--not only a war of newspaper editorials or political arguments about President Reagan's defense policy, but a more serious rupture of contact and personal communication.

As a British citizen I find it humiliating when the British prime minister has to grovel on American television, urging Americans to vacation in England; but realizing that the tourist industry is perhaps the only functioning industry Britain has left, I suppose she has no choice. Yet the fuss and bother over American tourists masks a much more significant point: Americans living in democratic countries overseas are being told that they are a people apart, distinct from their neighbors.

The bond between American unions and workers in other countries forged after World War II is just one of the ways America has made and kept friends in many parts of the world since 1945.

If American citizens are now to be encouraged to hold themselves aloof, then an era of postwar common neighborhood is over. How sad it is to see Americans develop a persecution complex about being the peculiar targets of terrorists when you consider the prior experiences of the British (attacks by the Irish Republican Army), the French (every month Paris is shaken by explosions from various sources by various causes), the Italians and Belgians (who have faced down terrorism from the extreme right and left) or even the Swedes (who still mourn their murdered premier, Olof Palme).

The attack on Tripoli and subsequent reaction by Americans does not appear to have lessened world terrorism by one iota. The question is whether it heralds a new epoch of American attitudes toward --and American behavior in--the rest of the world.

If the answer is yes and Americans are encouraged to isolate themselves when living among friends and neighbors abroad, then the terrorists and their sponsors are well on the way to their idea of victory.

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