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The Witchcraft of Walls


Much like some other animals, humans are wired to build separation markers, known as fences, borders, and walls. Leg-lifting dogs urinate to mark their territory. Rabbits claim their ground by depositing fecal pellets. Rodents rely on the quantitative model of urination (more pee) to “countermark” an area claimed by rival rodents. Animals mark territory mostly for defending their food and mates.

Human walls carry a complex mixture of territorial, psychological, pathological, and predatory motives.  The objective to build walls varies from self-enclosure to adverse possession of someone else’s territory. Furthermore, populations build walls to mark and countermark their national, religious, ethnic, and racial identities.

Since time immemorial, the Chinese had been building walls at the northern border against the Mongols. Seven hundred years ago, the Ming dynasty unified and fortified the ancient walls into the first momentous territorial wall (over thirteen thousand miles long) known to human history –the Great Wall of China. Like the Chinese, the Trojans built walls to protect the city of Troy. The Romans built a lengthy wall (73 miles) to safeguard the colonized Britannia from Scottish invasions.  The ruins of ancient walls have survived in Iraq, Zimbabwe, and Peru.

The 21st century is witnessing a recharged revival in building walls in the name of national security. The old adage, poeticized and ridiculed by Robert Frost, declares that “good fences make good neighbors.”  Yet, the new walls face resistance, even condemnation, from critics. In 2004, the International Court of Justice condemned the Israeli wall built in the West Bank, calling it a predatory land grab.

In 2016, President Trump, a realtor by vocation, promised to build a 30-foot-high “beautiful wall” along the border with Mexico. Vincent Fox, the former President of Mexico, denounced the proposal as a “fucken wall.” India is planning to build security walls on the borders with Pakistan and Bangladesh. Pakistan is building a wall on the disputed border with Afghanistan, dividing the Pashtuns. Hungary is building a second electrified wall to keep out migrant workers from Serbia and Croatia.

Walls are built not only to keep out the undesirables, but also to keep in the desirables. The Berlin Wall was built to stop brain drain from East Germany crossing over to the West.

The most captivating walls are abstract and ideological. They are built within the populations, communities, and nations. These walls serve both to keep in and keep out individuals. A racial population may build a wall around itself through segregation, apartheid, and anti-miscegenation laws. A religious population may build a wall around itself through theology, self-righteousness, and laws against apostasy. Gated communities keep out the poor, the strangers, the loiterers, and even annoying guests.

Whether physical or ideological, a wall is essentially a contest of wills. It is a playable game. A wall furnishes an evanescent psychological comfort to the walled-ins.  The same wall, however, ignites the audacious spirit of the walled-outs. Border guards armed with weapons, infrared cameras, drones, and all-terrain vehicles look for smugglers, terrorists, and plain old illegals. On the other side, the ecstasy of painting graffiti on the wall, climbing over the wall, drilling holes in the wall, and laying underground tunnels probe the wall’s fragile impenetrability.

Contrary to the game plan of engineers and architects, all walls crumble one way or the other. Some walls age gracefully and turn into spectacular ruins. Some are opened to tourists for strolling. Some are erased to unify the divided cities. White women procreate with black men. Mexicans turn into patriotic Americans. Christians and Jews rescue besieged Muslims. The Iron Curtain is pulled apart.  The Palestinian and IRA “terrorists” feast at the White House.

As always, much like demons in the darkness, even if you don’t believe in evil spirits, Trumps, Wilders, Le Pens, and Al-Baghdadis are brewing rhetoric, cement, and concrete in cauldrons to shield the nation, the race, and the religion with high and mighty walls.

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