Vermont will always be one of my favourite places in the world.
The three summers I spent at summer camp near Salisbury, VT as a child were not 100% happy, but I fell in love with the state and its terrain. I’ve been back a couple of times as an adult, and the gentle hills and small towns still speak to my heart. (Vermont is also the home of US Senator Patrick Leahy, who tried heroically to cajole the Clinton White House into signing the global landmine treaty in 1997.)
All of which brings us to the story of Derby Line, VT, a town on the Canada-US border that suddenly finds itself on the front lines of America’s effort to fortify itself against international terrorism.
For more than a century, residents have happily (sometimes unknowingly) moved back and forth across an international border that bisects streets, divides houses, and runs “smack down the middle of the shared local library,” reports Sunday’s Washington Post.
Now, border security has descended with painted lines, pylons, posted warnings, and a proposal to build a security wall through the town. The U.S. Border Patrol sector headquartered in Swanton, VT will have 300 agents by next year, compared to 340 for the whole Canada-US border in 2001.
The solution isn’t as simple as sending the agents home: the Post reported an increase in drug smuggling arrests, and acknowledged the ever-present fear of someone carrying a bomb across an unprotected border. (In either direction, I hasten to add.)
But Derby Line is becoming a brilliantly sad example of what we lose when we let walls replace bridges.
Meetings serve many different purposes but, at their most basic, they bring people together to understand each other better. That’s one of the main reasons our industry, and our society, place so much emphasis on meeting face to face.
By the time Pat Leahy and a few hundred international diplomats arrived in Ottawa for the Landmine Treaty Conference, they had held 14 months of preparatory meetings around the world—to find common ground, hammer out differences, deal with objections, and craft a global ban on a particularly nasty grouping of products that had been described as a “weapon of mass destruction, moving in slow motion.”
The people who negotiated the landmine ban obviously had to cross international borders, passports in hand. But the treaty would not have happened if it had run into the kind of metaphorical wall of which the Derby Line situation is becoming a more literal example.
It’s an altogether too human trait to fear people we don’t know. We use meetings to break down the barriers—whether they take place in a conference hall or a neighbourhood coffee shop. The strength of those human connections has survived so far, against all the inconveniences, delays, and routine humiliations that meeting travelers experience every day.
Back at the border, I don’t know what to do about a town that has a foot in two countries. I’d like to think that smart, sensible people could come up with a way of protecting national boundaries without attaching new meaning to the “line” in Derby Line. I do know that if we stop talking—across backyard fences, and across cultures—we’ll all be far less safe and secure than we are now.