Bordering on surreal — live images of war

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A civilian aircraft is shot down over the border between Russia and Ukraine, wreckage burning on the ground. Two hundred ninety-eight innocent souls lost. In another quadrant of your screen, outgoing rockets from Gaza meet incoming missiles from Israel along the border as Israeli ground troops seek to destroy tunnels connecting the areas. Cut to the U.S.-Mexico border, where thousands of people are streaming across to escape life in Latin America, facing uncertain conditions. Pause before watching scenes of insurgents marching toward Baghdad. They came over porous borders with Syria.

Everywhere you look, a boundary is in dispute at a time when we supposedly live in a virtual e-everything world with no borders. The question arises — what role do borders serve?

From the dawn of time, through empires and kingdoms, and then the Treaty of Westphalia and the creation of the nation-state, we have tried to make sense of the lines that separate populations — be they artificial lines or ones agreed to by those separated by borders. Wars begin over borders and demarcations between north and south, east and west. Borders matter.

We need a national and international dialogue about borders. People feel torn between their national loyalties to protect their own country and their understanding that people who live on the other side of a border also have rights and needs. We have humanitarian impulses and national interests. It is hard to balance both.

Through history, we have seen good examples and bad on borders. Let's remember: A wall separated East Germany and West Germany. It fell and a one-state solution emerged. When the Soviet Union fell, a many-nation solution emerged. But Kashmir remains disputed between India and Pakistan. In the Israeli-Palestinian case, the search has been for one state and that goal has been elusive.

Borders have physical ramifications. Fences line borders. In Israel, soldiers guard checkpoints. In Texas, immigration officers process paperwork. Each day, U.N. soldiers patrol the demilitarized zones in Asia or Sinai or countless other regions.

What purpose do all these lines serve?

Well, for one, borders provide a sense of where a country begins and ends and whose government is in charge. Just as we need police on our streets, we need patrols of our water, land, sky and space. Someone somewhere has to take responsibility for something, especially when it is disputed territory.

Secondly, borders help define who belongs to a country and what services and protections that country will afford them. Our passports and visas are vital instruments of nationality. They accord certain legal rights and obligations for which we pay taxes and vote.

Thirdly, borders ensure that those who follow the rules and mean no harm can rest comfortably in the basic knowledge that life is safe because someone is watching the border. Borders create norms — or invite violation of them.

Disputed borders and dotted-line borders keep cartographers guessing and historians rewriting. They leave geographers well-employed. But they keep the rest of us confused about policy and values.

We need to focus on the meaning of borders and how, in a borderless world, we avoid chaos across them. With the stroke of a key, I can cross any border with a simple Web address. "Domain" is no longer eminent but imminent.

So let's talk about borders, since we are all watching the borders on our televisions and smartphones ... and wondering on which side we are safe.

Sonenshine is a distinguished fellow at George Washington University.

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