The Less-Open Society

Crossing what used to be a free border


I'm a college student living in the state of Washington. Three days a week, I cross the U.S.-Canadian border to British Columbia to attend Trinity Western University. In the wake of the horrific events of Tuesday, September 11, what used to be perhaps the easiest international commute on the planet has now become something very different.

A lot of pundits–and more than a few politicians–are ready to declare war on terrorism; they talk of the need to completely restructure American society to win that war. The sort of social regimentation that requires hasn't been discussed much yet, but it needs to be. In seeking to preserve our open society, a new war on terrorism may end up shutting it down.

In order not to fight the traffic on Wednesday, the next day I needed to be at school, I made plans to stay with some Canadian friends and headed north on Tuesday afternoon. Although radio reports had been talking about long lines at the border, by the time I got there, around 5 P.M., the line had evaporated. Recognizing me, the Canadian border guard asked only a few more questions than usual and waved me through.

By the time I headed back into the U.S. the next day, everything had changed. The wait at the Lynden/Aldergrove border station was over two hours long instead of the normal two minutes. In order to keep my car–a 1991 Pontiac Sunbird–from overheating–I had to keep firing and killing the engine as I waited in line. Several people in other cars got out, pacing and chatting the side of the road. The open border to which I had become accustomed was a thing of the past.

Cars were admitted in a single-lane only, with a guard on each side and a few more hovering behind them in the periphery, on American soil. The sign as I approached read: "Unlock all doors and open trunks." Every last vehicle was searched, from Volkswagen Beetles to family-filled minivans. Mercifully, the commercial truckers were allowed to go through in a separate lane. The guards appeared to linger longer over Canadians and minorities.

When it came to my turn, the guards—who recognized me from repeated trips these last few years—were fairly lenient. They searched my front seat, asked considerably more questions than usual, and then began rummaging through my car's trunk. In the rear-view mirror, I saw one of them pick up and pause over my copy of Benjamin Netanyahu's Terrorism: How the West Can Win. He threw it back in the trunk, shut the door, and waved me on.

All of which is far from some of the horror stories that I've heard these last few days. The border wasn't totally closed down. Guards didn't detain me for questioning, rip my car apart on the spot, or pat me down. The line wasn't over five hours long, as I've heard it is in some spots.

Such disruptions are understandable, given the calamitous events. Hopefully, they're temporary, too. My car, with almost 200,000 miles, will not take two hours of stopping and starting on a regular basis. I did not go back to Canada today. For next week, I've arranged to stay in Canada and will be staying there until the border once again becomes more open. I am far from the only student in this bind and there are many thousands of people who cross the border in both directions every day to work. For a little while, we can improvise, staying with friends and the like.

But if this new "heightened security" persists, it will lead to structural readjustments. Fewer people will cross the border for any reason; employment will be essentially restricted to the country of residence; and ultimately people will interact less. A once open society will become much less so.

If that happens, the mad bombers of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon will have destroyed even more than they did on their suicide flights.