A Brief History of Barriers
If history has anything to say about Trump’s wall, it’s doomed before it even becomes a blueprint.
If history has anything to say about Trump’s wall, it’s doomed before it even becomes a blueprint. “The Wall” will be an eyesore and moral blight, a heavy tax burden for many generations not just in its building, but in its maintenance, will ultimately be as effective as a rice-paper-crafted tank, and will probably be torn down and disappear as fast as the taxpayer dollars which funded it. So why are so many still convinced, despite mounds of evidence to the contrary, that it will work?
There is no real question left about the potential effectiveness of man-made barriers. History has already issued its verdict on walls:
The Sumerian Amorite Wall
The world’s earliest known civilization was the first to build a defensive wall. It stretched over a hundred miles from the Tigris to the Euphrates rivers in what is present-day Iraq. Built mostly of local rock, their wall was as stable as a two-legged stool — the invading Amorites simply knocked it down or walked around it.
The city of Ur was attacked and destroyed in 2000 B.C.E and Sumerian culture vanished from the earth.
The Athenian Long Walls
Seeking to connect the city of Athens with the sea, Athenians built a series of walls to connect their city to two important ports — Piraeus and Phalerum, effectively creating a protective triangle between Athens and its ships in 461 B.C.E. However, their navy was defeated, so the city had to surrender anyway, wall or no wall.
The victorious Spartans happily knocked the walls down, again built mostly of local rocks stacked on top of each other. Legend has it they had so much fun doing it, Spartan girls played flutes, sang, and danced while soldiers knocked them down (the walls, not the girls). They were rebuilt, but were knocked down again by the Roman general Sulla.
Construction was begun by Roman emperor Hadrian in 122 C.E., in the Roman province of Britannia and the wall was meant to protect civilized Romans from the uncivilized ancient Britons and Picts on the other side (sounds familiar). It was 80 Roman miles long. Construction started right around the same time the Roman Empire first began its long, painful collapse, which would come to complete fruition in this area by 410 C.E., after which ancient Britons, Irish, and Picts flowed over the wall as they desired.
Less of an unbreachable defense and more of a political statement (still sounds familiar), it was a symbol of Roman power, and ultimately a symbol of Roman failure, as it deteriorated at about the same rate as any memory of ancient world democracy. Its fate was to wind up being mined for building materials over the next 1,600 years.
The Great Wall of China
Often seen as history’s grandest and most successful man-made barrier, construction began in 300 B.C.E and continued for the next 14 centuries, but most of it was built over only 3 of them — during the Ming dynasty between 1300 C.E. and 1644 C.E. Constructed of rock, straw, wood, and earth, it featured mortar made from lime and rice, and was a technological marvel in its time. It stretched nearly 4,000 miles. Many parts of the wall still look great and are visited by tourists regularly, especially the areas around Beijing, mostly because of the Chinese government’s controversial decision to pay for its constant upkeep and renovation. A lesson to us perhaps that the Chinese are still paying out the tuchas for the maintenance of a wall upon which construction technically ended over 400 years ago.
As beautiful and advanced as it was however, even history’s most successful wall failed when it was needed most. Mongol leader Atlan Khan famously simply marched his troops around it and the Manchus breached it in 1644, bringing down one of history’s longest-reigning dynasties, the Mings, and leaving Beijing destroyed.
While technically not a wall, the Bastille was a barrier, both physical and psychological. Built during the Hundred Years War, the fortress was originally intended to protect Parisians, but was deemed a state prison in 1417. However, it didn’t develop its infamous reputation until Louis XIV began using it to jail noble subjects who thwarted, or even simply disagreed with him. After the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, it was used to jail countless Protestants whose only crime was having a different religion than the majority.
It was considered one of the most indestructible fortifications of its time. As former prisoners wrote of their horrific experiences while jailed there, the Bastille developed an international reputation, and became a physical symbol of corruption, injustice, and royal despotism. Near the beginning of the French Revolution, July 14, 1789, it was stormed by the Paris crowd, who took this impermeable fortress apart, stone by stone, with their bare hands, freed the seven prisoners they found inside, and beheaded the warden. Literally nothing remains except a few pieces of the foundation which have been relocated. Louis XVI lost his noble prison in the eternal words of the movie Titanic “about the same time old Louis lost everything from the neck up.”
Arbeit Macht Frei Gate, Auschwitz-Birkenau (or Auschwitz II)
Over 1.1 million people were murdered in Nazi Germany’s most notorious extermination camp, located in Oswiecim, in southern Poland. Despite such tragic numbers, nearly a thousand people attempted escape from the deadly camp, though many were offsite when they tried it.
Plenty were caught, but some weren’t. We know 254 remain unaccounted for, but are sure 196 survived the escape, most of them living well past the end of the war.
One such person was Kazimierz Piechowski who heard of plans for his best friend inside the camp to be killed. The evening of June 20, 1942, Piechowki and his friends stole the car of Commandant Rudolph Hoess (along with some uniforms), and terrified at the guards at the exit by shouting and swearing at them in German. Believing they were seeing Hoess and higher ups, the guards jumped up to open the gate, while Piechowski and his friends simply drove right out. Piechowski describes the anger of the Commandant once he realized his car was stolen, and people he believed lacked intelligence and imagination had “literally taken him for a ride.” The Nazis wound up blowing up a lot of the camp themselves when they set explosives in the gas chambers and crematorium just days before 7,000 people still in the camp were rescued by the Soviet army January 27, 1945.
The Maginot Line
We’re back to France for history’s least successful man-made barrier. Based on France’s experience with trench warfare from World War I, the Maginot Line was created in the 1930’s, as Nazi Germany became a threat. It was crafted of concrete and featured many ouvrages, or forts, and weapons installations. It was considered impenetrable.
Perhaps taking a cue from their forebears, the Nazis simply avoided it, and marched into France from the north, going through the Netherlands instead, effectively circumventing the problem altogether. During the war the ouvrages Hunspatch, Ingolsheim, and Schoenenbourg in Alsace were the most heavily bombarded, and in 1945, they were destroyed by German explosives.
To this day, “Maginot Line” is a metaphor for a false sense of security.
The Berlin Wall
The Berlin Wall, also called the Iron Curtain, is modern history’s most infamous wall, so far anyway. It was constructed in 1961 when Soviet-aligned East Germany decided to put up concrete barriers between communist East Germany and capitalist West Germany. Soviet authorities stated the reason was to keep fascists from invading, but it was actually designed not to keep people OUT, but rather to keep IN the people who wanted to flee a corrupt Soviet government. It was — at the risk of being repetitive — deemed indestructible.
It survived for 28 years, less because it was a wall and more because of the maze of 12 foot barriers, electric barbed wire, and heavily armed guards surrounding it (we already have those guards on our border by the way). Over 100 people died trying to escape, but many more tunneled under it or flew over it to freedom. With the fall of the Soviet Union, the wall needed to be addressed, and authorities decided to open it November 9, 1989. Immediately however Berliners took the eyesore down themselves with jackhammers, pickaxes, and their bare hands. Pieces of the concrete barrier became instant souvenirs.
Will this wall work?
So, will this wall somehow magically work when all the others have failed? Will it keep out illegal immigrants and dangerous people? According to Professor Emeritus Dr. Michael Dear of the College of Environmental Design at UC Berkeley — nope.
Why? Several reasons. According to his article “Five Problems ‘the Wall’ Won’t Solve”, which appeared on Politico.com, the majority of immigrants now deemed illegal did not come over a border illegally, but were granted visas, which have since expired.
Drug cartels outsmart checkpoints, and prefer to watch for weaknesses there (like shift changes, going to lunch, or deciding which guards can be bribed) rather than send their people through an empty wilderness — more checkpoints means more drugs, not less.
What about terrorism? Since 9/11, 80% of terrorists were either citizens or permanent residents — of the 154 people who have attacked this country or plotted to, only one was Mexican, and there’s no evidence he illegally crossed the border. When Trump talks about leaving NAFTA and trade disputes with Mexico, unemployment (the main reason people come here illegally, to find a job) goes way up. His tough talk is basically shooting immigration reform in the foot.
What about simple deportation? Immigration courts are already overwhelmed; significantly more deportations will cause them to grind to a halt entirely.
And none of those reasons address the real possibility — let’s just call it a certainty at this point — that the wall, which will require a whopping $5 billion dollars just to begin construction, will physically come down at some point.
So why are people so convinced the wall will work? From childhood, we’re taught to keep barriers between us and people we don’t want to be around. From walled gardens to gated communities, the idea that building a barrier between ourselves and “undesirables” will keep us separate, has been with us for literally thousands of years. It’s ingrained in our belief structure. Construction companies and real estate agents make a mint selling the idea that it’s truly possible to keep people apart; gated communities are among the most expensive places to live in the country. The idea that a big wall won’t keep people out seems counter intuitive to many people, no matter how much evidence you throw at them, and many people from both political parties, have demonstrated that it won’t.
I’m no engineer, but I am a historian, and history tells us that the effectiveness of any man-made barrier at keeping out “undesirables” is directly correlated to how badly said “undesirables” want to go up, over, under, or around your wall- or simply knock the damn thing down. There is one force no barrier or challenge can stand up to, and that is the force of human will to overcome it. Sadly, over the course of the last roughly 4,000 years of wall-building, it’s a lesson we have yet to master.
There are plenty of moral arguments against the wall, but if those don’t appeal to you, allow me to offer a pragmatic one — at some point, and probably sooner rather than later, the valuable tax dollars you earned by working hard and parted with to build a wall, will literally crumble to dust at the hands of a human being who was unlucky enough to be on the wrong side of an arbitrary man-made barrier.
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