Walls And Fences

An important anniversary passed almost unnoticed on Saturday. Precisely a half-century earlier, East German border guards began building the Berlin Wall, a symbol of the human impulse to flee hopelessness for opportunity.

Borders are meant to divide. They are indispensable in a complex world in which we organise ourselves into societies that are as large as nations and as small as homeowners associations and neighborhoods. Yet the best borders are the least visible. They mark boundaries that are accepted by consensus and implemented by trust rather than by force.

Walls are monuments to insecurity. The only walls that inspire national pride are ancient ones, like China’s Great Wall, that have long outlasted their original purposes and can be appreciated for their historical or engineering value.

Today, newly constructed barriers like the U.S.-Mexico Border Fence and the so-called Separation Barrier between Israel and the West Bank are justified by their advocates on the basis of security. Like the Berlin Wall, they may be temporarily effective at controlling people’s movements. Berlin’s Wall epitomized communism’s failures in many Western eyes, but it stopped a wave of defections that threatened to turn East Germany into a worker’s paradise without any workers. For nearly three decades, East Bloc leaders were happy with their wall.

Robust barriers might prevent some Mexicans from crossing into the American Southwest, or many Palestinians from making their way into Israel. The barriers’ supporters will therefore claim they have made their countries more secure. But real security comes from eliminating the need for walls in the first place.

France and Germany went to war three times in less than 70 years between 1870 and 1939. As World War II broke out, French troops crouched behind what they thought were the impregnable defenses of their Maginot Line. Nine months later, German troops marched down the Champs-Élysées.

Today, you can cross nearly all the frontiers in Western Europe without so much as tapping your car’s brakes. The Franco-German border has never been more peaceful. Politics (and Allied victory in the war) have accomplished what no wall ever could.

Wallace Pond straddles the U.S.-Canadian border a couple of miles outside the village of Canaan, Vt. Summer homes line both shores of the small lake, and people dock their boats in their back yards, but it is illegal to cross the lake to attend a neighbour’s barbecue.


Jackson Lodge Road is an unpaved byway that leads away from the pond’s shoreline. It dead-ends in an American driveway, hard against the border. A two-strand wire fence and a small granite obelisk mark the frontier. Just beyond the obelisk, which sits atop a small embankment, cars speed past on Quebec Route 141. My wife and I happened to be there Saturday afternoon, quite coincidentally on the Berlin Wall’s anniversary, as we explored some of the wild country in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom.

Not long ago, this stretch of the boundary might not have been marked at all. Canadians and Americans freely crossed our shared border without the need for passports. There have always been rules governing what items could be brought over the border, or how long someone could stay to live or work, but for most of my lifetime the U.S.-Canadian border was proudly labelled the world’s longest unfortified frontier.

The two-strand fence on Jackson Lodge Road is not much of a fortification, but the changes along the border are bigger than that. Since 2009, everyone crossing the border in either direction must have a passport. (Canadian rules would still permit Americans to enter without one, but because the United States insists on a passport for even its own citizens’ return, Canada requires one for admittance.) U.S. Customs and Border Protection has publicized its plans to install thousands of sensors and cameras to track surreptitious movements over the border. Up in the Northeast Kingdom, most such movements will be moose, deer and various wildlife, so I would not expect a rapid response team to necessarily chase me down if I jumped that two-strand fence from Canada. Still, one never knows.


Despite the relaxed security, our northern border has a distinctly less neighborly feel than before. At the customs crossing between Canaan and the Quebec village of Stanhope, two wood-frame dwellings stand apparently abandoned between the U.S. and Canadian border posts. Once, their occupants could have walked out their front doors, turned right into America or left into Canada, and gone about their business. Now the spot is a no-man’s land, requiring border formalities in both directions. Whoever owns, or owned, that houses evidently decided it was not worth the bother.

All along the border, streets are blocked off where children used to casually ride their bikes between countries, or adults once strolled over the border to have coffee with relatives on the other side. In Montana, our Glacier National Park and Canada’s Waterton Lakes National Park are officially joined in an international “peace park.” Today, however, backcountry hikers arriving from Canada are ordered to check in at the American ranger station at Goat Haunt before continuing their wilderness excursions.

These inconveniences might be justified if they actually made either country safer. They do not. Anyone determined to cross the border can do so at many points, including the spot we found on Jackson Lodge Road. Smugglers and terrorists are not going to be deterred by motion-sensor cameras and two-strand fences.

Moreover, Canada has precisely the same security concerns as the United States. The places to stop attacks on either country are at the main ports of entry into North America, and in the cities and towns where home-grown plots are hatched. The display of security at our previously undefended frontier is all display and no security.

True, Ahmed Ressam, the “millennium bomber” who was sentenced to 22 years for trying to bomb Los Angeles International Airport, was apprehended at a U.S. border crossing from Canada. It was a triumph for border security, but things have changed a lot in both countries since 1999, and his arrest still did not prevent the much more noteworthy attack that followed on Sept. 11, 2001.

Borders are not going to disappear anytime soon, nor are border fences. But there is no reason to cheer the erection of walls, either physical or virtual. As the Berlin Wall showed everyone, and as my weekend trip to the woods reminded me, the cause for celebration is when the walls come down.

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