June 17, 2008

Remembering Border Checkpoints
When I answered that I came from 'far away',
The policeman at the roadblock snapped, 'Where's that?'
He'd only half-heard what I said and thought
It was the name of some place up the country.

And now it is - both where I have been living
And where I left - a distance still to go
Like starlight that is light years on the go
From far away and takes light year arriving.

--from "The Flight Path" by Seamus Heaney
Circa 1985, sectarian strife seemed so silly and so romantic because the hatred was fascinating merely for the novelty of seeing a people with a historical memory -- at least from the perspective of someone living in an amnesiac society. In childhood we'd create a backstory that didn't exist and play-act an imaginary war between Kentucky and Ohio, with a checkpoint barge in the middle of the Ohio River (called 'The Kentucky River' by those south).

Brimming with the invisibility and confidence that America conferred, we imagined visiting Belfast and walking her streets unafraid, full of the power and naivety of the non-combatant, our clothes giving us away as tourists, as guests, inducing that famous Irish hospitality as if involuntarily on their part even if due partially to crass commercialism.

True borders can be figures of romance. The clarity of difference in an age of confusion and mixed loyalties, the meaningfulness of here we believe X and there they believe Y. One pines for the clarity of a Checkpoint Charlie in a terrorist age, for the days when the enemy made exaggerated arm thrusts and marched a high-step. "May we know them by their limp," goes the Irish proverb concerning our enemies, but now we know them only after their homicide/suicide act, an enemy that makes the old Soviets look rational and reasoned.

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