`Good fences' respect those on both sides

November 19, 2003|By Jill A. Schuker

WASHINGTON - "Good fences make good neighbors." Robert Frost's vivid poetic injunction was one I grew up hearing, reading, writing and thinking about, and not just in English class.

The words are both provocative and penetrating, thoughtful and controversial, profound and applicable in history, geography and politics. When uttered, reflective discussion and debate usually follow.

And the words have a haunting quality.

The phrase resonated in the 1960s when the Berlin Wall was erected, as well as when it came down years later. I thought about the words as I witnessed the "Green Lines" in Lebanon, Cyprus and Belfast and considered what they meant for those living amid their reality.

They have occurred to me more recently when considering the Israeli decision in the wake of suicide bombings to build a "security fence" along a strip of land in the West Bank.

In the United States, impoverished "ghettos" as well as gated enclaves are cut from this same cloth.

So, when do good fences indeed make good neighbors? Only when those on both sides of the divide agree to its existence, purpose and longevity. Whether the "fence" is solid, opaque, porous or exists only as a mindset, the barrier is real. As something imposed and designed to divide, not just to protect, it is a barrier, whatever the stated intentions.

The intention of such a divide may be to lessen tensions, but this is not often the case. Instead, any "divide" demands differences be identified and recognized but not necessarily respected. That is the piece that remains missing. Whether the Masada of old or a nuclear shield of the future, history mocks the idea of impenetrable barriers. Sept. 11 was a shattering example.

Energy needs to be focused on working toward common ends. Conflict resolution means erasing, not erecting, divides. Solutions that ignore a healthy respect for and understanding of differences, attitudes and diversity always will be temporary and fragile at best.

Perhaps the current proposed "road map" to a peace agreement in the Middle East will not be the path to success, but neither will an imposed fence ensure a secure future for this and future generations of Israelis or Palestinians.

Good neighbors make good fences. Not the other way around.

Jill A. Schuker is a former special assistant to the president for national security affairs in the Clinton administration.

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