What is a border? A line, a fence, a checkpoint, to be sure. It is also an idea, a national impulse, a societal definition, a political concept.
The ongoing saga of migrants pressing the ideas of borders of Europe, in certain phobic minds in the US and elsewhere is making headlines every day, because it’s dramatic.
A storyteller by trade, I tend to look for the deeper narrative at work. Human migration as a story is as old as society itself. Weather, economics, politics, religion, war and myth have always been the foundations of the mass human impulse to move from one place to another, often through great hardship.
My own parents immigrated to the United States after the Communist revolution in China. Like millions of others, their journey was fueled by hope for a better life.
How then can I look at the encampments at Calais, the daily boatloads arriving in Greece and Italy, the desperate faces at the Macedonian border and not feel a kind of kinship?
On the other hand, have I not been raised in a country that by definition has its own borders? As a child, have I not pledged allegiance to a flag that embraced my mother and father, offering them a chance to build a better future for their family? Did that flag not ask for a modicum of respect, acknowledgement, loyalty to an idea? Do I believe in America? Do believe in borders?
Perhaps in the distant future we will think of nations in another way: instead of areas of space marked off and contained by lines on a map, we will imagine specific regions of “radiance”. Different circles of energy that emerge from a vital center, and emanate outwards. These circles would sometimes overlap with other circles, sometimes remain distant, sometimes cause other smaller circles to emerge. At the center of the circles, the things a nation considers its defining elements: a seat of political power, for example. At the very edges of these radiating circles, there would be areas of exchange, translation, movement, sharing, conflicts from time to time, and most importantly, potential. For example, there would be no border between France and Spain, but there would be vital centers such as Paris and Madrid. The area of the Pyrennes would be a place where to the south, the Basque would live, perhaps radiating their own small center. Along the current border, there would instead exist a region of open trade and transition, becoming a vital space of porous energy instead of a no man’s land of demarcation.
The flow of migrants to and from the vital centers now becomes the collective responsibility if everyone affected by problems: war and chaos upset the balance, so the pressure on troubled vital centers would be vastly increased. Proxy wars might diminish, because certain nations would not be able to depend on a sealed border to innoculate themselves from their imperial machinations. London, Paris, Berlin and Madrid would not be able to blame each other, place responsibility elsewhere or call for stronger borders. Instead, the heads of these “states” would be sitting at a table in Syria, Libya, Afghanistan, etc. with their counterparts, hammering out a realistic solution to a collective problem. No one would be able to hide behind a wall. Could enough negatively affected “centers” decide they need to intervene in another “center’s” internal affairs in order to restore an equilibrium? The answer is yes. A troubling concept to be sure. However, which seems the worse course: letting Libya / Syria / Afghanistan / (place troubled nation here) continue to descend into chaos, or intervene with an open, honest agenda of stabilization? After establishing an end to hostilities, the restoration of basic needs for citizens such as water, food, health care, etc. the hard work would begin. How to make that “center” vital again, so that it can radiate once again? (Damascus, Tripoli and other distressed cities in the region once were areas of great radiance).
Of course, this is only a fantasy, since nations will remain obsessed with borders as long as nations exist in fear and loathing. One only needs to take a look at the utter farce that currently defines the “border” between north and south Korea to witness the absurd lows which human stupidity can display with a bit of concentration and myopia.