Walls called ‘fear in three di­men­sions’

Bar­ri­ers are more than con­crete and steel, they’re sym­bols with many in­ter­pre­ta­tions: ex­perts

Winnipeg Free Press - - I WORLD NEWS - MARC FISHER

ONALD Trump, a 21st-cen­tury leader who does busi­ness around the world, owned his own jet and gov­erns by tweet, has staked his U.S. pres­i­dency on a wall — the most me­dieval of civic sym­bols.

For the past few decades, as half a dozen pres­i­dents have strug­gled over how to man­age the flow of mi­grants from south of the bor­der, con­ser­va­tives and lib­er­als alike have of­ten re­jected a wall as an outdated tac­tic, a blunt in­stru­ment that might keep some peo­ple out, but sends a dis­com­fit­ing mes­sage about Amer­i­can ideals of open­ness and fails to ad­dress the fac­tors that drive mi­grants here in the first place.

Trump, who rarely gets philo­soph­i­cal, felt com­pelled to ad­dress the moral­ity of a wall in his Oval Of­fice ad­dress Tues­day night. The pres­i­dent said peo­ple “don’t build walls be­cause they hate the peo­ple on the out­side, but be­cause they love the peo­ple on the in­side.”

Wit­tingly or not, Trump, echoed what many his­to­ri­ans have said about why even the most modern so­ci­eties keep build­ing walls: “By build­ing a wall or fence, you’re defin­ing your com­mu­nity,” said Gre­gory Dre­icer, a his­to­rian of tech­nol­ogy who has stud­ied fences and na­tion­al­ism.

But walls have a check­ered his­tory of main­tain­ing sepa­ra­tion be­tween peo­ple. No mat­ter how high, how long, how strong the wall, peo­ple have an un­canny knack for find­ing their way over, un­der and around.

From bib­li­cal Jeri­cho to modern Mex­ico, walls have been put up to stop ter­ror­ists, im­mi­grants, ar­mies, drugs, weapons, for­eign­ers, un­de­sired races and creeds and tribes. The Ro­mans built Hadrian’s Wall to keep out the bar­bar­ians. The Chi­nese built the Great Wall to keep out a series of ri­val coun­tries.

Walls set­tle scores and re­in­force rows. Walls have en­dur­ing emo­tional sway. They’re good at send­ing

Dmes­sages. “Tear down this wall,” Ron­ald Rea­gan said at the Ber­lin Wall in 1987, and some peo­ple be­lieved that an en­tire em­pire fell as a re­sult. Some his­to­ri­ans con­tend that walls have re­peat­edly proved their worth: they pro­tect com­mu­ni­ties from per­ceived threats, bring­ing the peo­ple in­side the wall to­gether in se­cu­rity and ca­ma­raderie.

But walls can also un­der­mine com­mu­nity, cre­at­ing and ce­ment­ing “us ver­sus them” an­tag­o­nisms, let­ting wall builders avoid res­o­lu­tion of the prob­lems they face.

“A wall or gate tells you ev­ery day that there are dan­ger­ous peo­ple right out­side who want to de­stroy you,” said Setha Low, an en­vi­ron­men­tal psy­chol­o­gist at the City Univer­sity of New York’s grad­u­ate cen­tre and author of a book on gated com­mu­ni­ties. “Hard bar­ri­ers cre­ate fear.”

Like the pres­i­dent, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has fo­cused not only on the prac­ti­cal ques­tion of whether a wall works but on the larger mes­sage it sends.

“A wall, in my view, is an im­moral­ity,” she said. “It’s not who we are as a na­tion.”

But walls and other phys­i­cal bar­ri­ers are as Amer­i­can as can be.

In 1860, Abra­ham Lin­coln’s pres­i­den­tial cam­paign, seek­ing to brand the can­di­date as a man of the peo­ple, dis­trib­uted pieces of fence to vot­ers, a re­minder that Lin­coln was a rail-split­ter, a man who, like many Amer­i­can farm­ers and landown­ers, built fences. From the coun­try’s ear­li­est days, when only white male landown­ers could vote, many built fences on their land to show their neigh­bours they were el­i­gi­ble vot­ers, Dre­icer said.

In re­cent decades, U.S. de­vel­op­ers have built gated com­mu­ni­ties to keep out crim­i­nals, sales­men and van­dals. To­day, more than 14 per cent of Amer­i­cans who live in sub­di­vi­sions live be­hind walls or gates, ac­cord­ing to the Cen­sus Bureau’s Amer­i­can Hous­ing Sur­vey.

But walls also run con­trary to Amer­i­can ideals of open­ness and in­di­vid­u­al­ism. “Don’t fence me in,” says a clas­sic Cole Porter song. “Oh, give me land, lots of land, and the starry skies above / Don’t fence me in.”

To­day, walls are a pop­u­lar re­sponse to the vex­ing prob­lem of mass mi­gra­tion in a glob­al­ized econ­omy. When thou­sands of Mid­dle Eastern and African refugees poured into eastern Europe in 2015, Hun­gary be­gan build­ing a four-me­tre-high fence on its bor­der with Ser­bia. Sim­i­larly, Bul­garia chose a fence to slow down mi­grants ar­riv­ing from Turkey.

But many say walls are out of step with a so­phis­ti­cated era. At the Vat­i­can last week, Pope Fran­cis re­called the Ber­lin Wall as a sym­bol of “the painful divi­sion of Europe” and pleaded with Chris­tians to steel them­selves against the “temp­ta­tion to erect new cur­tains.”

The Ber­lin Wall was built on a lie: com­mu­nist East Ger­many claimed it was pro­tect­ing its peo­ple from west­ern in­vaders; the struc­ture’s of­fi­cial name was the “Anti-fas­cist Bul­wark.” But, in fact, East Ger­many erected the wall to pen in its own cit­i­zens, who had been de­fect­ing to the cap­i­tal­ist west in mass num­bers.

Un­pop­u­lar for ev­ery one of its 10,316 days, the Ber­lin Wall stood as long as it did be­cause it served the pur­poses of both sides: the East mostly halted its brain drain. And many west­ern lead­ers were glad to back away from a con­fronta­tion with the op­pres­sive So­viet and East Ger­man regimes.

“A wall is a hell of a lot bet­ter than a war,” U.S. pres­i­dent John F. Kennedy said in 1961.

Gov­ern­ments keep com­ing back to walls for two rea­sons: walls make some peo­ple feel se­cure. And it’s of­ten much eas­ier to build a wall than it is to solve a prob­lem through law or pol­i­tics.

“The ex­is­tence of the wall con­strains and shapes be­hav­iour just as much as, if not more than, law,” said Sarah Schindler, as­so­ciate dean of the Univer­sity of Maine law school, who has stud­ied how bar­ri­ers can ac­com­plish pol­icy goals that elected of­fi­cials can’t achieve through po­lit­i­cal means.

For ex­am­ple, while it’s un­con­sti­tu­tional to bar peo­ple from a neigh­bour­hood based on race or poverty, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6-3 in 1981 that the City of Mem­phis could bar­ri­cade a street that con­nected a white neigh­bour­hood to a black one. White res­i­dents had asked for the road to be closed to ease “traf­fic pol­lu­tion” and keep out “un­de­sir­able traf­fic.”

The court re­jected claims by black res­i­dents that the bar­rier was in­tended to di­vide the races. “The fact that most of the driv­ers who will be in­con­ve­nienced by the ac­tion are black” was merely of “sym­bolic sig­nif­i­cance,” the court said.

Trump’s prom­ise to build a wall along the nearly 3,200-kilo­me­tre U.S.Mex­i­can bor­der is hardly new. By 1996, the Clin­ton ad­min­is­tra­tion’s “Op­er­a­tion Gatekeeper” ini­tia­tive in­stalled fences, walls, sen­sors and lights to halt the flow of il­le­gal im­mi­grants. The net ef­fect was to shift mi­gra­tion from the San Diego area to the Ari­zona desert.

In 2007, the Ge­orge W. Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion launched a US$7.6-bil­lion pro­gram to add walls, fences, cam­eras and other tech­nol­ogy to cre­ate “ef­fec­tive con­trol” of the bor­der. That didn’t much work ei­ther.

“A wall is so prim­i­tive,” said Jane Lo­ef­fler, an ar­chi­tec­tural his­to­rian who has stud­ied the for­ti­fi­ca­tion of U.S. em­bassies af­ter the 1983 bomb­ing of the U.S. Em­bassy in Le­banon. “You can dig un­der it, go over it, cat­a­pult your­self over it. A wall is more sym­bolic than a real de­fence. A wall is fear in three di­men­sions.”

The ex­am­ple Trump of­ten cites of a suc­cess­ful wall is the 429-kilo­me­tre bar­rier — part wall, part fence — that Is­rael built in the West Bank to keep out Pales­tinian sui­cide bombers. The num­ber of bombs has in­deed de­clined: 450 Is­raelis were killed by sui­cide bombers in 2002. Just 13 died in

2007, af­ter the bar­rier was com­pleted. Pales­tini­ans say the huge drop re­sulted mainly from se­cu­rity ef­forts by the Pales­tinian Author­ity. Mean­while, the bar­rier’s broader im­pact has been mixed.

“Is­raelis say they feel much safer,” Low said, “but the wall also deep­ened the social di­vide, mak­ing it even harder to cross.”

Walls have a huge ad­van­tage over laws, norms and other in­tan­gi­ble ef­forts to gov­ern be­hav­iour. Rules work only by the good­will of the peo­ple, the recog­ni­tion of a social com­pact about who we want to be, and an ex­pec­ta­tion that rule break­ers will be shamed or pun­ished.

Walls re­quire no such con­sen­sus — and may hold spe­cial ap­peal for a pres­i­dent who came to of­fice as a builder, a de­vel­oper who re­peat­edly acted on his be­lief that facts on the ground would usu­ally beat the code books.

Pro­po­nents of walls take heart in their clar­ity. In 2010, when for­mer Alaska gov­er­nor Sarah Palin learned that a jour­nal­ist who planned to write a book about her was mov­ing into the house next door, Palin said she would sim­ply build a fence, which she claimed was any­thing but an act of ag­gres­sion.

Cit­ing the clas­sic Robert Frost poem, Mend­ing Wall, best known for the line “Good fences make good neigh­bours,” Palin took Frost to mean that a fence can en­hance re­la­tions with peo­ple who live nearby.

But the poet was be­ing ironic; his point was that walls sep­a­rate us from each other. “Some­thing there is that doesn’t love a wall / That wants it down,” Frost wrote. He saw his wall-build­ing neigh­bour as an un­think­ing slo­ga­neer, pil­ing rocks atop one an­other “like an old-stone sav­age armed.”

Still, walls con­tinue to be built be­cause they are part of who we are. “Walls can be im­por­tant sym­bols, and they can have some ef­fect,” Dre­icer said. “The Ber­lin Wall did keep East Ger­mans from leav­ing for a long time. But as with most walls, you could see from the be­gin­ning that it was just doomed.”


Cen­tral Amer­i­can mi­grant fam­i­lies and ac­tivists gather Jan. 6 at the bor­der fence in Ti­juana, Mex­ico, as some climb to the top. For cen­turies, walls have been built to keep peo­ple in or out, but ex­perts are still ask­ing if they work.

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