There was a history text book in school days that had a chapter comparing the West with the Communist bloc. A black and white photograph inset to the side of one page showed one of those huge 1960s American automobiles passing through a tunnel. On the tunnel wall, a vertical line was painted. To the left of the line there letters on the wall declaring, “Canada”; to the right of the line, “United States”. Underneath the photograph, a caption in italics said, “An open border”.
Was it so easy then, to move around? Maybe it was.
In a vinyl record shop in Nelson, British Columbia, last summer, I asked the owner where he was from.
“No, forty years ago. It was Vietnam or Nelson and Nelson seemed the more attractive choice!”
He was one amongst the many who had come northwards to avoid being drafted into the US army and sent off to the disastrous conflict in south-east Asia. His shop had an original copy of the triple album from the Woodstock Festival of 1969 – a continuing symbol of the opposition to the war.
Were the borders open in those days? Certainly, there was no Canadian immigration official waiting to turn back eighteen year old boys.
The next day we drove westwards to Penticton. Highway 3 through southern British Columbia kisses the US border. The green hills of the state of Washington are close enough to reach out and touch. It would have been tempting to have taken a left at one of the cross-border road intersections and to have driven down down into Washington State for a coffee – just to say that we had been in the United States. However, the prospect was uninviting. Signs declared that particular crossings were only open at certain hours and there were stories of lengthy delays at times for traffic going in both directions. If there was “openness” in the past, it seemed to have long since gone.
But who is all the security for? Does world peace depend upon discouraging tourists from driving to a country town for coffee on a Sunday afternoon?
Canada and the United States are hardly hostile powers. They have a joint radar defence system (with which it will be possible to track the progress of Santa next Wednesday night!). The security is not directed against each other, it is directed against illegal and subversive activities within their countries. Yet, like many law enforcement measures, it probably has most impact upon the law-abiding, being completely evaded by those at whom it is directed.
There are probably few international terrorists or illegal migrants trying to cross from British Columbia into Washington on a sunny summer afternoon. They tend to move at less public times through less public places. The border crossings are probably as effective against crime as the Garda immigration official checking my passport at Dublin airport after I had flown in from London. Were I an illegal, I would cross from Scotland into Northern Ireland by ferry and simply catch the first bus from Belfast to Dublin.
Rules have always seemed to apply only to those who keep them. Security measures seem chiefly to annoy only those who pose no threat anyway.
The alternative? Perhaps to create a consensus within society about what is acceptable and what is not; to say that people must much more be vigilant in their own communities and report those guilty of anti-social activities; to say that people working together for a secure world makes it a happier place for everyone.
Before the First World War, it was possible to travel through Europe without even a passport; a barrier free world is not impossible. It would even allow me to have a cup of coffee in the United States.