Issue #58 (September 1986)
When you're traveling, there's always something special about entering a new country. Every frontier becomes a tangible presence when a uniformed official examines your passport, then reaches for the stamp that signifies you have been accepted as a visitor in a foreign state. It gives me a psychological kick.
Of course there are frontiers and there are frontiers. The last time I pushed a baggage cart through the "Nothing To Declare" door at Heathrow my mind turned back to a very different frontier — to the day in 1960 when I hoisted my backpack and [quoteright]walked alone, past deserted rice paddies, several miles from the customs post at Poipet, Cambodia, to the border guard shacks at Aranyaprathet, Thailand. I doubt that many tourists have gone that way since.
At one end of Afghanistan the Khyber route clings to a mountainside bristling with ancient fortresses; at the other, the frontier used to be marked only by a multilingual sign advising you to switch to the other side of the road. Luckily, traffic was always light.
It is ironic that many of the hardest-fought frontiers are today the least visible. In western Europe, you cross the battle-weary boundaries between Germany and France, Italy and Austria, simply by waving your passport at a smiling policeman. On the other hand, the newest and most artificial frontiers tend to be the most difficult. Where the Russian armies happened to stop in 1945, there are now minefields, barbed wire, and very unsmiling soldiers. Between India and Pakistan you pass a battery of army posts, each demanding a fresh examination of papers. I suspect that once a frontier has been established by enough blood and treaties it no longer needs defending. It's only the untried ones that require a show of muscle.
I once crossed a frontier that was non-existent on one side. To visit Israel from Jordan in 1977, I obtained a travel permit from the Jordanian Ministry of the Interior. At the Allenby Bridge the Jordanians scrupulously avoided stamping my passport, maintaining the fiction that I was simply visiting a western province of Jordan. On the Israeli side, however, soldiers examined my papers carefully and performed a meticulous examination for weaponry, right down to probing my toothpaste tube. When I returned a week later the Jordanians just waved me back in. Officially, I had never left their country.
We tend to assume that national frontiers are always the hard-won variety, the kind whose locations have been hammered out over generations. However, this is not the case with the majority, particularly those in Asia and Africa. They are typically remnants of colonial organization charts, set up for the convenience of nineteenth-century European bureaucrats. The border between Nigeria and Niger, for example, defined the limits of British and French influence a century ago. Today it has little meaning for the people who live there, except as a source of income for the border guards.
Conversely, the lumping together of Hausa, Ibo, and Yoruba (plus dozens of other cultures) in Nigeria was an administrative convenience for the Colonial Office in London. Today it is useful only to mapmakers. In fact it generated a mass of human misery in 1967-9, when the Ibos tried to correct the map by forming Biafra.
Given the irrationality of most third-world national frontiers, I have always been puzzled at the way they are slavishly respected by Western governments. An Idi Amin or a Pol Pot can wallow in genocide as long as he stays within little lines drawn on a map. We do nothing because "it's an internal affair." Should he be so foolish as to send his soldiers across one of those painted lines, however, alarm bells finally ring. "Armed aggression" declares the United Nations, and a "peace-keeping force" is assembled. Peace is thus treated as a function of geography, not of human life.
George Washington, an ex-mapmaker who warned us about "entangling alliances," would surely have scratched his wig in wonder if he had been told that we would one day fight major wars in Korea and Viet Nam because certain soldiers had marched across certain parallels of latitude. But he would have been even more nonplussed to learn how much murder in neighboring countries we were prepared to ignore, simply because it did not involve theoretical border violations.
Thus a "national frontier algorithm" seems to govern the propriety of intervening in foreign pogroms. If blood doesn't flow across a border it's not our concern. I can only surmise that we adopt this rule of thumb for much the same reasons that the colonial powers drew up artificial national boundaries: as a convenience. We can narrow the world's multiplicity of troubles to those few instances when troops actually march across borders.
But of course this algorithm is eagerly supported by every third-world despot, for it gives him license to control his people. The loudest to cry for "national sovereignty" are those who are plundering and murdering the very nationals for whom they purport to cry.
In our domestic polity, we have finally agreed that the dictum "a man's home is his castle" does not sanction a man's beating his family behind closed doors. The equivalent maturity in international affairs, however, still eludes us.
Why do we fall all over ourselves respecting national frontiers? Besides being a convenience, I think this attitude also reflects our inbred optimism about foreign governments. Despite massive evidence to the contrary, our opinion-makers assume that all regimes are nascent democracies. If we just leave them alone and let them "develop" through their "growing pains"... so goes the theory. Unfortunately, the payoff for this policy always seems to lie somewhere beyond tomorrow. Meanwhile, the local generals grow fat.
So I still get a kick out of going through Immigration in places like Burma or Burkina Faso. But at the same time I am conscious that the line I am crossing is as likely to cover up institutionalized evil as it is to promote the aspirations of the people that live behind it. National frontiers are a game; and like every game they produce few winners but many losers.
George Towner was born in Reno and grew up near Berkeley. As a teenager he began making gangster movies using an old 8mm camera, one of which featured a car being pushed over a cliff off State Highway 1. He has started and sold two successful technology firms, and currently works for Apple Computer, where he is the most senior in age. He lives with his wife in Sunnyvale. They have two daughters and a son.