David Frye’s Walls: The History of Civilization in Blood And Brick (2018), at first blush seems like a pretty dry tome on the history of walls. I hasten to add that the whole thing is well-written and highly informative. From the Ancient Middle-East to the Great Wall of China, we are afforded the historical contexts in which civilizations have sought to defend themselves through the use of walls. It is towards the end of the book that Frye’s arguments become particularly applicable to the current times.
As Frye explains, there’s been a lot of bad public relations with regards to walls. Despite Robert Frost’s famous line, “Good fences make good neighbors,” the current zeitgeist is that walls are a tool of ignorance and bigotry. This might have a little something to do with former President Donald Trump and the 2016 presidential race. Since then, the new mantra is “build bridges not walls.” Yet the book itself demonstrates many examples of walls serving their purpose, freeing up civilizations to pursue civilian pursuits, hobbies and leisure, rather than constantly battling the barbarians outside the gates.
One striking example of a modern walled state is Israel:
“…Israel has enclosed itself with walls. The tiny nation, long sequestered from its neighbors by fenced towns and kubbutzim, constructed its second-most-famous wall in response to the Second Intifada, a Palestinian uprising that lasted from 2000 to 2005…By 2002, the government had commenced work on a barrier that would eventually stretch 450 miles and spawn several more walls totaling hundreds more miles.”
If it’s ok for Israel to have walls, why is it somehow problematic in America? They have security threats, as do we. They have illegal immigration, as do we.
“The West Bank Wall—to its critics, the Wall of Occupation or even the Apartheid Wall—features various technological advances, many cribbed from the Old Iron Curtain barriers. Infrared night sensors, radar, seismic sensors, balloon-borne cameras, and unmanned, remote controlled Ford F-350 Trucks, equipped with video cameras and machine guns augment the wall’s concrete slabs and concertina wire” (236).
The point is that while there was so much controversy about Trump’s border wall, which President Joe Biden ironically would expand by 20 miles, the rest of the world has quietly build walls without much fuss. Although Israel has built something more aggressive and sophisticated than Trump with their West Bank Wall, no one heard criticism of their project in the media.
Middle East, Asian, and African Walls
It’s not just Israel either. Egypt has a “steel wall that extends more than sixty feet below ground” on its border with Gaza; Jordan has a 287 mile barrier along Jordan’s border with Syria—for which the Obama administration gave them 500 million and 2 billion in loan guarantees to build (237). This is despite Obama referring to the concept of building walls on borders as “wacky” in 2016 (238). Likewise, India has built walls on its border with Pakistan to stave off Islamic terrorism, fences spanning thousands of miles across high mountains.
Kenya began work on a 450 mile wall on its border with Somalia with concerns of Islamic terrorism in 2015, in the wake of a terrorist attack that killed 148 people. The Obama administration also funded a wall on Morocco’s border with Libya to “prevent the movement of Jihadists” (238).
After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Frye explains, American politicians have been loathe to use the word “wall” to refer to any barrier on the Southern border. That is, until Trump, who rather forthrightly promised to “build that wall” to his adoring and somewhat belligerent crowds. Since the Trump era, perhaps we have gotten over the stigma of the word “wall”; or perhaps the word has become more charged than ever.
Clinton, Obama, Bush, and Biden Walls
Prior to Trump’s famous declaration to “Build that Wall,” previous US presidents, including Democrats, constructed and expanded the Southern border wall. The Clinton administration initiated border wall construction in ’93 and ’94; in 2006 the Bush administration continued this with the Secure Fence Act, which “saw the Clinton-era walls extended by hundreds of miles under the Bush and Obama administrations” (239). More recently, the Biden administration has ok’ed the expansion of 20 miles of border wall, after Biden disavowed wall-building, a ridiculous contradiction similar to Obama’s.
Walls discusses Ancient Rome and China and their problems with “barbarians,” and how those civilizations sought to stave off outsiders with walls. The book’s thesis is that it’s a double edged sword. Sometimes walling yourself in makes you lose your edge, which is why those Mongolians were so tough—they refused to settle down anywhere and exposed themselves to the elements.
Yet that argument no longer seems relevant. Nowadays, a wall is just a wall, and it’s a mighty practical thing.
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