PEACE PROBE by Gene Stoltzfus

Borders and Fences by peaceprobe
August 6, 2008, 2:46 pm
Filed under: Peacemaker spirit, Politics of Empire

They call the 4000 mile U. S. Canada border the “most open free trade border in the world.”  You wouldn’t know it here in the border town of Fort Frances when you talk with people who spent much of their lives moving back and forth across the border for business, pleasure, and shopping.  “It isn’t worth it any more” my neighbour tells me.  “I get tired of the inconsistent and sometimes belligerent behaviour of the agents.” 

As the deadline looms when Canadian citizens will be required to show a passport when entering the US, these visits whatever their purpose are decreasing.  People here are tired of being questioned, searched, and feeling belittled by INS and Customs officials. 

With Robert Frost’s lines, “Good fences make good neighbours.” still ringing in my ears from long ago literature class, I try to comprehend these fences for nations.  Something in me doesn’t like them.   I look forward to a time when my human family gives up on border fences, custom houses, check points and toll booths?  

I live about three miles (five kilometres) from the border.  In high visitor months like we are in now, back ups for homeward bound American vacationers at the US border crossing can reach as much as a mile in length.   When this happens I walk across or use a bicycle to fetch my mail in International Falls, Minnesota.  Cameras, helicopters, and small aircraft now regularly monitor this freest border in the world.  Every time I go I see at least one frustrated or angry traveller.  And, this is in fact pretty free compared to another NAFTA (North America Free Trade Agreement) frontier, the 2000 mile long Mexican border where a real fence is being built by Elbit, an Israeli defence company which also is building the wall between Palestine and Israel.  Its partner in the creation of great walls, the Chicago based Boeing is another well known defence contractor.  The US Secretary of Homeland Security tells me these border crossings, fences and monitoring devices make me safer and have challenged their Canadian counterparts to toughen their security as well.   

Some months after I moved to Canada I was pulled in for a hard nosed three hour interview and told that I was not welcome unless my civil disobedience arrests were cleared up.  They all were neatly listed on the computer screen, compliments of the FBI records to which Canadian officials in remote Fort Frances had access.  If I was going to stay in Canada I had to go to every jurisdiction where I had been arrested for what I believed to be patriotic actions and get a letter of clearance that charges had  been either dropped, or properly adjudicated, and that if found guilty I had been rehabilitated.  I spent a week and 1500 miles collecting verification.  When an arrest in the US is processed and completed, one’s FBI file is never updated nor erased.  There are limits to rehabilitation.   

Borders that mutate into fences have been happening in this world for millennia.  Hadrian’s Wall begun in 122 AD was built across England to prevent raiders from Scotland from invading civilized Roman controlled Britain to the South.  Persons watching the Olympics won’t miss seeing the Great Wall of China which, like the Canadian border, stretches for about 4000 miles.  Two to three million people reportedly died during its centuries long construction. It was also built to keep dangerous tribes out of Imperial China.  

The Berlin Wall was constructed to keep people in and Ronald Reagan didn’t approve.  “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”, he shouted in Berlin shortly before it did come down.  If tough talk and shouting at border walls really helps to bring them down, maybe Palestinians and Mexicans should organize to clang frying pans, train official shouters and brigades of naggers at these unwelcome walls.  

Once I believed that customs posts were the last vestiges of military checkpoints which I had encountered around our globe.  Forty-five years ago in Viet Nam and Cambodia I leaned to act really dumb at these bothersome checkpoints.  I pretended not to notice the tiny little transactions that lubricated the movements of goods, services and people across military check points and customs tables.  Today such bold bribery for “free” passage is almost gone.  Or, has it moved to bolder state control and free trade arrangements with the supporting cast of agents and lawyers who do the lubricating?  

Remind me again of the reason for this new era of fences, custom houses, and immigration agents.  Oh yes, this is part of the war on terror to make things safer for me.  Is the world out to kill me?  When 9/11 struck my first thought was that the US as victim nation would use this as a wake up call to profound changes in cultural, economic and disastrous political strategies.  I didn’t actually think about borders, walls and new fences as a solution.

“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” writes Robert Frost in his opening line, before he meanders along his fence with his neighbour in the springtime.  Frost wonders why the effort to fix the fence is so necessary.  His neighbour repeats, “Good fences make good neighbours.

But the question, “Why do they [the fences] make good neighbours?” lingers.  Frost can’t find the answer except that a neighbour told him so.

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know 

What I was walling in or walling out, 

And to whom I was like to give offence. 

I am sure this little poem had nothing to do with the war on terror.  And, that Frost would be smitten with embarrassment to think that he had anything to do with public policy in general or with immigration agents and custom clearance here at Fort Frances, Ontario.  That it has always been this way does not impress him.  Oh well, he is just a poet. 



Robert Frost 


Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, 

That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it, 

And spills the upper boulders in the sun, 

And makes gaps even two can pass abreast. 

The work of hunters is another thing: 

I have come after them and made repair 

Where they have left not one stone on a stone, 

But they would have the rabbit out of hiding, 

To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean, 

No one has seen them made or heard them made, 

But at spring mending-time we find them there. 

I let my neighbour know beyond the hill; 

And on a day we meet to walk the line 

And set the wall between us once again. 

We keep the wall between us as we go. 

To each the boulders that have fallen to each. 

And some are loaves and some so nearly balls 

We have to use a spell to make them balance: 

‘Stay where you are until our backs are turned!’ 

We wear our fingers rough with handling them. 

Oh, just another kind of out-door game, 

One on a side. It comes to little more: There where it is we do not need the wall: 

He is all pine and I am apple orchard. 

My apple trees will never get across 

And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him. 

He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbours’. 

Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder 

If I could put a notion in his head: 

‘Why do they make good neighbours? Isn’t it 

Where there are cows? 

But here there are no cows. 

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know 

What I was walling in or walling out, 

And to whom I was like to give offence. 

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, 

That wants it down.’ I could say ‘Elves’ to him, 

But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather 

He said it for himself. I see him there 

Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top 

In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed. 

He moves in darkness as it seems to me~ 

Not of woods only and the shade of trees. 

He will not go behind his father’s saying, 

And he likes having thought of it so well He says again, “Good fences make good neighbours.”


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