Over the past few years, questions about who belongs where have dominated the news. Stories about migration. Legal and illegal immigration. Nativism. Colonialism. These issues have triggered deep emotional responses and plenty of punditry, though less attention has focused on the ideas that underlie them. Perhaps it’s time for us to take a deeper look.
As a child, I often saw myself as both an insider and an outsider. I suspect that’s how many children feel, although I can trace much of my ambivalence about belonging anywhere to the fact that my parents were from different parts of the world. Even as a kid, I recognized the power that contradiction provided. It offered an opportunity for me to deepen my empathy for others, widen my circle of compassion, and become comfortable in my individualism no matter where I am in the world. Since belonging can be closely tied to possession (as I discuss below), my ambivalence shaped the lens through which I see concepts such as borders, ownership, and identity. It has also heavily influenced the way I approach medicine and ethics, including my work in human and animal rights, hopefully for the better.
Lately, I have been thinking a lot about borders—specifically, their purpose and their problems.
Here are the three questions with which I’ve most been grappling:
Are borders morally defensible?
This is a big question, and it’s worth considering. It inherently requires reflecting on whether the earth can ever truly belong to anyone, and how land becomes a possession—to individuals, groups, corporations, or governments.
In the 1800s, Chief Sealth of the Duwanish Tribe in the State of Washington captured the problem well in a letter to President Franklin Pierce, after receiving a request to sell land to the US government. He said,
How can you buy or sell the sky—the warmth of the land? The idea is strange to us. Yet we do not own the freshness of the air or the sparkle of the water. How can you buy them from us? Every part of this earth is sacred to my people. Every shining pine needle, every sandy shore, every mist in the dark woods, every clearing and humming insect is holy in the memory and experience of my people.”
Of course, the truth of how the US government displaced indigenous communities in what is now known as America is well known. In most cases of border creation, one group has invaded another and taken away land, frequently through violence or deceit. Another invasion or war may occur years later, and borders are redrawn again. One group becomes displaced; another moves in. Others are prevented from moving into the area until some shift occurs. And so the cycle continues. It would be difficult to assert who, if anyone, in these cases has a rightful claim to the territory at stake.
Nonetheless, for better or worse, today we live in a world in which borders have been drawn, often by those in power. National sovereignty is an internationally recognized concept. However, we should not confuse whether a borderless world is possible with whether it is morally defensible. Nor should we confuse the right to individual bodily sovereignty (the right to move freely and protect one’s body from harm) with national sovereignty. Though there is a clear legal and ethical tension between these concepts, they are not morally equivalent—which brings me to my next question.
Is it possible to balance law and order with tolerance and compassion?
To this question, I would answer, absolutely. Borders, which are as old as agricultural civilization, did not create law, order, and justice. If we consider the treatment of many humans and nonhumans along the way, it could be argued that justice was disregarded on the path to what we call civilization.
On a recent episode of Amanpour on PBS, Professor Alexander Betts of the University of Oxford Refugee Studies Centre offered a thoughtful, compassionate, and just framework for sustainable human migration, including a kind response to refugees and asylum seekers. As a student of forced migration and international affairs, Betts has suggested a clear strategy that balances law and order with tolerance and compassion.
When thinking about migration we can also take a lesson from other animals, who are far more likely to make room for other animals (including us) than to engage in conflict. Exceptions might include situations in which resources are severely limited. This point brings me to the last of my three questions.
When making policies about borders and the use of land, sea, and air, how do we move forward in a thoughtful way?
I’m not exactly sure of the best and most realistic answer to this question, but it’s clear that we need to move beyond predominant ideas, “western” ideas, and “modern” ideas about civilization, in particular. We also need to move beyond human-centric ideas. As scientists have recently pointed out, fences and walls erected along international boundaries threaten the health and wellbeing of people and animals.
In his letter to President Pierce, Chief Sealth went on to say,
If I decide to accept your offer to buy our land, I will make one condition. The white man must treat the beasts [interpreted as “nonhuman animals”] of this land as his brothers. I am a savage [interpreted as “animal,” as we are all human animals] and I do not understand any other way. I have seen a thousand rotting buffaloes on the prairies left by the white man who shot them from a passing train. What is man [the human species] without the beasts? If all the beasts were gone, man would die from great loneliness of the spirit, for whatever happens to the beast also happens to man.”
Whether he intended to or not, Chief Sealth captured a critical connection between the rights, health, and wellbeing of people and animals.
It is possible to foster community even as communities change, to co-exist in a peaceful manner, and to move beyond a zero-sum game. In fact, it is necessary to our survival and the very earth we depend upon—to say nothing of the multiverse we live in, with its many hidden mysteries that we cannot even begin to imagine. From such a distance, borders become blurred by the slope of the land, the turbulence of the sea, and the flow of the air—reminding us that no matter what borders we draw, we all share in the fate of the planet.
The accompanying image is of a dog looking through the international border separating the United States and Mexico. Credit: Creatista.