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Does building a wall actually work?


By Laura Bohnert

It’s 2017, Donald Trump is the president of the United States, and everyone has one question rolling about in the back of their skulls: is he really going to build a wall?

It was a campaign announcement that seemed absurd—until it wasn’t anymore—but how absurd of an idea is it to declare the necessity of a wall to both secure and fortify the border between nations?

A lot of walls have been built in the past: the Berlin wall, the Great Wall of China—but how effective are they in keeping the peace (okay, peace probably isn’t quite what any of these leaders have been going for here; ‘heightening the security’ may be a better phrase for it) between neighbouring sides?

Effectiveness is a problematic thing to quantify without first knowing the purpose, though. So what is the purpose of the wall? In most historic cases, walls are designed to fortify cities—or nations—against invasion. The Great Wall of China is one example. While it is thought to have begun to be built by soldiers, commoners, and even criminals, the Emperors involved in connecting the pieces and extending the wall had defence in mind. In fact, a lot of early cities are designed with structures that keep warring neighbours out. Urban city planning perfected by the Romans featured a central forum of city services surrounded by gridded streets, and surrounded again, in some cases, by a wall that simultaneously marked and defended city limits. Outside the city limits were left as farmland, and each main road was guarded by a gateway and watchtowers.

Walls were implemented as political tactics, barriers to defend against warring invaders, and even though Trump’s wall is meant only as a resolution for immigration controversies, it still represents a politicized fortification. Trump’s wall suggests the need to defend the US identity against the immigrant foreign other, and the wall’s militant history is statement enough regarding the type of threat Trump believes is in place.

The construction of the fortified barrier is a clear assertion of the need to keep the other out, but the wall itself can only ever be emblematic of the tensions that exist between neighbouring nations; it can’t actually resolve the tensions that are already in place. More importantly, its ominously militant, fortified presence may actually create more problems than it can temporarily appease. The presence of a fortified structure sends the message of threat to both sides of the wall who now need to be guarded in the face of a panoptic, policing, militant object.

The wall creates the threat of terrorism—the heightened anxiety of the outside other—but it does so on both sides, which means any tensions that exist between nations, rather than being acknowledged or worked through, become not only intensified, but fortified as well.

Walls create fragility, not strength, so in the words of Roger Waters, it’s time to “tear down the wall” instead of building new ones.

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