(All images are my own)
I pride myself on being slow to take offense. I go to church on a regular basis (not as regularly as I should lately, but that's another post), but irreverence doesn't bother me much, for instance. I have a pretty low sense of humor when you come right down to it. Still, I have my "buttons": cruelty, rank hypocrisy and glaring ignorance being three biggies. Joe Miller, Alaska Senate candidate extraordinaire, hit two out of three (and I'm giving the benefit of the doubt on cruelty) thanks to his brute squad and praise of East Germany so breathtakingly stupid it easily exceeds anything Christine O'Donnell has said. Including her statements on the First Amendment. Namely, Miller held up the former German Democratic Republic as a model for border security.
The first question I had was...did Joe Miller ever visit East Germany? Because I did.
In the summer of 1989, I was privileged to spend a summer in the German city of Krefeld as part of the Indiana University Honors Program in Foreign Language. It is a thriving program that gives language students the opportunity to gain fluency in German, French or Spanish in a total immersion program. My German is rusty these days but the fact I can still speak and understand it at all is probably largely due to that summer.
For the German group, the culmination of our summer was a trip to Berlin. Germany--and Berlin--were still divided. If we'd told our host families or teachers, or other friends we'd made over the summer, that before the year was over that the Wall would fall and the East German government would effectively collapse, they would have told us Du spinnst. You're nuts.
We travelled to Berlin by bus. Krefeld is on the Rhine, so we drove across the Federal Republic to cross the border just east of Hannover. I can't show you a picture of that border crossing. We were told, in no uncertain terms, to not even have our cameras out. In theory, we could have been detained for espionage. More likely, our cameras would have been confiscated. But the image of that border is still vivid, even over two decades later: loop upon endless loop of barbed wire; large watchtowers every half mile or so; jack-like tank traps. God only knows what destructiveness lurked under the soil. The two most powerful military machines in human history were staring each other down, and I and my classmates had a front row seat for the time it took to clear the border.
Once in Berlin there were more checkpoints, of course. We visited Checkpoint Charlie. Nearby was a platform that would let you see across the no-man's land dividing the two halves of Berlin. Potsdamer Platz is now a bustling center of culture and commerce--as it was before the city was divided. When I saw it, it looked like this:
This is what Joe Miller, and those who would his approve his comments, would have the U.S. - Mexico border look like.
And you know what? The Berlin Wall and those massive fortifications couldn't keep people in. Did the majority of East Germans stay? Sure they did. The majority of people just try to get along. But there was a museum at Checkpoint Charlie dedicated to the ingenuity of those who defeated that security that Joe Miller sees as a model. Here's a BMW Isetta, which smuggled a number of people through the Wall driving from east to west and back again. The Isetta is probably the size of a SMART car, possibly even a little smaller. So small it was thought impossible to hide a person in. In fact, the car's career ended when someone being smuggled sneezed at the wrong moment:
The other thing I noticed about East Berlin in the day we spent there was how drab it looked. Some buildings still showed damage from World War II. You couldn't get more than two scoops of ice cream and the cola you got was this dreadful, nearly undrinkable stuff because the GDR couldn't import cola syrup. I know the command economy had a lot to do with this, but don't think the enormous expense of keeping a sealed border didn't play a big role too. We've beggared ourselves enough with two wars over the last decade; we don't need to add to it by trying to copy a Stalinist security apparatus.
We can not uphold our constitution--as the Tea Party wants us to do--and at the same time emulate dictatorial regimes like that of the German Democratic Republic or, as Newt Gingrich suggested during the height of the Park52 nonsense, Saudi Arabia. The rights and freedoms entailed by that marvelous document have costs. One of them being that we do not have a militarized border with Mexico. Whatever problems there may be with our border security, East Germany is not a model for solving them.