Borders Are Black Holes Where Ideas Go to Die

When border guards in the Middle East detained me for the books in my backpack, I realized that enforcing boundaries means controlling the flow of thought

In September 2016, fellow author Todd Miller and I took an investigative trip to the Middle East trailing a labyrinth of state-corporate border intrigue. As writers focusing on U.S.-Mexico borderlands issues, we had already written an sleuth piece exploring two sides of a trinational U.S.-Mexico-Israel security project called Global Advantage, which is headquartered in Southern Arizona at the publicly funded Tech Parks Arizona, a business incubator on a 1,345-acre research park that offers its homeland security clients a manufacturing base in Sonora, Mexico. To us, the combination of innovation and manufacturing functions as a multinational assembly line where NAFTA free trade policies grease the working parts of an emergent homeland security border apparatus. 

The one recurring commonality that flagged us for suspicion? Books.

Living on the U.S.-Mexico border, we’re both accustomed to the arbitrary powers of discretion wielded by border and customs agents. On this trip, we took painstaking efforts to cooperate at every turn of security check-points and their accompanying infrastructure of armed guards, customs clerks, metal detectors, X-ray conveyer belts, and—as we’d find out the hard way—nondescript plainclothes officers mixed in tourist crowds far outside formal border crossing point zones. In other words, “the border” followed us everywhere we went.

Despite our precautions, the trip was punctuated, at times, by confrontations with paranoid or obtuse agents on the look-out for whatever seemed leery to them from one moment to the next. The one recurring commonality that flagged us for suspicion? Books.

Books Across Borders

We experienced the phenomenon of books as potential national security threats first at the Israeli-controlled Sheikh Hussein Border Crossing while we were returning, circuitously, from Amman, Jordan to the city of Ramallah in the Palestinian West Bank, where we were based most of the trip. We traveled this slightly longer, roundabout route back to Ramallah because locals told us it would take less time than the crowded Allenby Bridge crossing, which took half a day to get through.

I had no premonitions as we walked the long banal distance from the gate to the port building. The nearby Sea of Galilee lay somewhere out of sight; that day the dry midday heat, in the thick of midsummer, granted not even a wisp of breeze. The blistering sunshine overhead sapped my energy. I could feel then that we stood at the pinnacle of anthropogenic climate change. Later, figures came in from the World Meteorological Organization to confirm that that 2016 summer had achieved the hottest earth temperatures on record. (Until July 2019 broke all records as the hottest in modern history.) Droughts east of the Jordan River, the ground over which we then trod, are projected to double by 2100 in what is already the fourth driest country on earth where freshwater access reaches below levels of “absolute scarcity” as defined by water scientists. Climate change may not be so clear from the bird’s eye view of daily weather patterns in one’s locale, but taken together globally, the drastic increases of cataclysmic climate events like flooding, draughts, and wildfires are displacing more and more people. These new climate refugees, averaging 21.5 million per year, will inevitably encounter borders—in a manifold bordered world in the 21st century where 15 border walls that scarred the earth in 1989, have multiplied to 70 walls today. These latest targets of greater border policing were on my mind as we attempted to cross yet another border.

Inside the port building, which was typically empty of crossers that day, the cooler temperature gave us some momentary relief before what happened next. Uniformed Israeli border guards had waved Todd through the port, ahead of me, and ushered him outside the building. No sooner was Todd out of sight then one of the soldiers stopped me after searching my backpack, apparently discovering some high-interest items. As I craned my neck to see what objects piqued his concern, he pulled out all the books I carried for the journey: some pamphlet reports from an Israeli-Palestinian research organization, Who Profits, whose staff researchers we interviewed the week prior; Dan Senor and Saul Singer’s Start-Up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle; Jeff Halper’s War Against the People: Israel, the Palestinians, and Global Pacification. And a copy of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. The guard stacked the books neatly on the static conveyor belt and walked over to his colleagues, where they huddled for what seemed an extraordinarily long time, seldom looking my way but otherwise rapt in their conversation.

The guard stacked the books neatly on the static conveyor belt and walked over to his colleagues, where they huddled for what seemed an extraordinarily long time.

Todd later said he didn’t know what to do as he waited for me outside. What if they detained me long into the night, as they sometimes do?

Many months later, we reflected on that moment from a downtown Tucson ice cream shop out of sight from the nearest checkpoint that lay only a few miles away outside of town. The 102-degree June heat above the Sonoran Desert acted as an open-air kiln. Todd’s two-year-old son William sat between us, nodding his shiny bobs of curly blonde hair and babbling his own contributions to the conversation. We compared memories from the cluster of border zones in the Middle East where, like the US-Mexico border and others throughout the world, authorities can ultimately target anyone for suspicion—where border guards can say (or not say) whatever they want to justify their actions. 

Everywhere we looked during that Middle East trip, there were people, including ourselves, caught, in varying degrees, in the omniscient border netting. There was a solitary man at Jordan’s border who seemed to hold himself up by one hand placed palm down on the customs window counter that resembled a theatre box office. His tapping finger perhaps counted the hours he quite possibly had been waiting to cross. I’ll never forget when Todd and I waited within the juggernaut Qalandia security checkpoint in the occupied Palestinian West Bank—stuck suspended on the road between Jerusalem and Ramallah in a chaotic place where time slows and space is walled off. Locked under its weight we seemed to move a few steps per hour among the antsy families and desperate workers all waiting, packed together in narrow rows of caged pens that evoke imagery of hogs in a factory farm. Those privileged few of us who can even get out of the West Bank through the Allenby Bridge crossing into Jordan face the endless lines of stalled buses that, when they do get going, must pass military guard posts stationed by heavily armed soldiers on the narrow road to Amman, Jordan.

In any of these situations, regardless of your citizenship status or racial profile (though many are more frequently targeted than others), border agents may think you’re a member of an armed group or they simply don’t like the way you think about the world. As if borders are a place where ideas go to die.

But not all ideas. That’s where particular books, like those contained in my bag listed above, enter the equation. Oftentimes, border zones cultivate a discriminating sense of taste in their guards about what kinds of books interest them, often in accordance with the national worldview for which the guards are hired and trained to keep watch. Being more traveled than me, Todd had been ready for this global border trend, having gleaned a wisdom through researching his growing stack of published books on the topic that sent him weaving in and out of borders all over the world and their labyrinthine, bee-hive bureaucracies. “The guards looked at my books, too,” Todd said. “But, actually, in my case, I purposefully brought a book—I forgot what it was—but it was a book that wouldn’t raise any suspicion—”

Border zones cultivate a discriminating sense of taste in their guards about what kinds of books interest them.

“It was a tourist book,” I reminded him. I remembered that book well. It was the kind of orientalist travel guide written to function as training wheels on a cultural tricycle; to hold your hand in a foreign country, warning you about any counter-intuitive customs and instill in you an arsenal of healthy suspicions. For example, I brought multiple pairs of shorts, knowing the desert weather was comparable to Arizona. On our first day in Jordan, Todd took one look at me and—in his mischievously assailing humor—recalled an analogy he read in the book that classified apparent tourists like me: In Jordan, the book warned, wearing shorts in public was like wearing a skimpy bathing suit in Baltimore in the dead of winter. Later, while wearing those same shorts, I would be accosted by the Jordanian secret police, causing me to wonder what about me, to them, might have looked odd.

“Right, a tourist book,” Todd recalled, “and I also had just a novel, which I positioned at the top of my bag.” A wry twinkle gleamed in his eye as he said, derisively: “The fact that the guards went straight for the books as if they were going straight for a weapon, is quite telling. ‘My word is my weapon,’ as the proverb goes. And the fact that they took out your books,” he continued, “some of which described a worldview that was different from the dominant government narrative, is very important when it comes to this kind of bordered world, where the gap between ‘innocent’ and guilty’ is whether you’re compliant or not compliant; between who’s considered a threat and who’s not considered a threat. And a criterion that’s being used is that you’re singled out and interrogated for books!”

In a sense, a border becomes a kind of black hole; not only fragile human bodies but everything from cultural norms to established principles of democratic order seems patted down and stripped bare. The natural laws that define up and down, the moral metrics that define right from wrong become a valueless abstract theory whose credit is not accepted there as currency. We’re passed from palm to palm by the arbitrary whims and authoritative directions of border agents.

A border becomes a kind of black hole; everything from cultural norms to established principles of democratic order seems patted down and stripped bare.

Todd and I spoke about these things, reflectively, in a place where the only disturbances came from the hustle and bustle of a downtown thoroughfare. William took another lick of his butter pecan and the clatter of street traffic waved in and out as patrons opened and closed the door to the ice cream shop. In the deluge of crowded noise, Todd relived the feeling of waiting for me outside the Israeli port of entry all those months ago. “It’s also scary, too,” he said, “because, in that kind of situation, you don’t know what’s going to happen. I was waiting for you—probably only for 15 minutes but it seems longer when you’re waiting for your friend who’s not coming out and you’re wondering what happened.” His voice deepened pitch. “A startling thing about borders is that you can disappear into the system for a long time.” Recalling a shocking headline that posted earlier in the day, we both knew whom he meant.

One of those “disappeared,” French-Canadian citizen Cedella Roman, had recently emerged from her own black hole border nightmare. Her frightful story made headlines, unlike so many other hapless detainees who lack immigration status. At a convention of police and sheriffs in 2008, former executive director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, James Pendergraph told his audience: “If you don’t have enough evidence to charge someone criminally but think he’s illegal,” he said, “we can make him disappear.” 

So when Roman accidentally crossed the Canadian border into the United States while on an exercise run off the beachside near where Canada meets Washington State, agents from Customs and Border Protection, the parent company of U.S. Border Patrol, intercepted her when she strayed off, detaining her over a two-week timespan. But even by definition of state citizenship norms, once a citizen produces a passport, as Cedella did immediately when her mother frantically rushed to the detention facility with her papers, people like Cedella are supposed to be beyond suspicion by border officials who, time and again, nevertheless racially profile dark-skinned people like her. Todd bounded in astonishment, reacting again to the story just as when he first read it hours before. “Two weeks in CBP custody,” he remarked, “just because she jogged across the border and didn’t realize she was in another country.” The case of Cedella Roman is not the only one; many northern borderlands citizen residents, white or brown, have endured similar arbitrary detention stories.

The way border spaces act as a vacuum of political freedom elicits a dark, isolating feeling.

Gone, too, down the border void often are intrinsic political rights such as due process, even the longest-held tenants of modern social democracy which stretches back 1000 years to the Magna Carta. My brief detention at the port near the Sea of Galilee, Cedella Roman’s longer detention in the Washington State/British Columbia borderlands, and countless others who are held for many months, even years, seemed to culminate in Todd’s mind as a realization dimmed his facial features. “One of the things you always hear growing up in the U.S. is that you’re innocent until proven guilty. In a border situation, it almost feels like the opposite. You’re guilty until proven innocent.”

The way border spaces act as a vacuum of political freedom elicits a dark, isolating feeling. The rules are not explicit—or if they are, they’re hidden, and there’s no protective authority to intercede on your behalf. I felt it in my bones as I stood there submissively in the air-conditioned Israeli port building, my head bowed, next to the conveyor belt displaying my guilty stack of books as the border guards conferred about what to do with me. 

A Diary in Detention

Back at the Israeli port, Todd waited outside wondering how long I’d be held. But for me, what kept coursing through my mind was the similar tense encounter I had with the Jordanian secret police just days earlier. In between endless interviews and fatiguing day-trips to the Syrian border, Todd and I had taken a sightseeing walk from our hostel to the Roman Theatre, a historical landmark in downtown Amman. I sat writing in my diary on one of the giant stone steps at the base of the amphitheater. Just after I finished the line, “I miss my friends,” listing several names for whom I planned to bring some small trinkets, a shadow fell over my pages and I looked up at a group of three young men in plain-clothes pants and t-shirts, standing over me. They had me cornered, blocking every possible direction I could walk away, and demanded I show them my notebook and what I was writing.

They identified themselves as government agents. I didn’t have much cause to believe them until one of them reported with Jordanian military soldiers nearby who stood guard at the archway entrance. By then I had showed them my notebook pages while clutching deftly onto my knapsack. Not far away I saw Todd near the entryway standing helplessly, wondering what was going on. I shrugged at him quizzically.

Black holes, by their nature, cancel our assumptions and understanding about how the universe works.

Then, just as curtly as the men had approached me, they said I was free to go. I asked them, in English, why they detained me. They replied they thought I might graffiti the ancient theatre stonework, disregarding the fact that my writing utensil of choice was a blue-ink ballpoint pen. Todd greeted me outside. I told him what happened. His reply: “Let’s get out of here. Seriously.” We quickened our step and spent part of the day looking over our shoulders.

Back at the Israeli port of entry now, I remembered Todd’s words from the amphitheater. I wanted to be out of there so that Todd, who was still waiting outside trying to guess when I’d show up, could say those words to me again: “Let’s get out of here.” After a while, the Israeli border guard gave me back my books and, just as tersely as his Jordanian counterparts, sent me on my way.

Todd and I should be used to these experiences, since this sort of thing happens at U.S.-Mexico crossing points as well. But the more it happens to you—enduring nebulous security delays or mind games from laconic border guards—the more it reveals the reliable uncertainty of boundary enforcement. 

Black holes, by their nature, cancel our assumptions and understanding about how the universe works. Black holes are a place where all bets are off; where nothing, neither particles nor even light, can escape.  Like black holes, 21st century border policing has a quailing, forbidding quality from which seeking refuge is, naturally, the sensible move. They’re fundamentally undemocratic spaces that defy autonomy, self-determination, human rights, collectivization. But unlike natural black holes, border black holes are ultimately unnatural (a social construction) and, therefore, subject to change if enough people muster the political will to rethink their necessity and dismantle them.

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