With all the chatter today about building a security wall on the U.S.-Mexican border, perhaps there’s merit to looking into the history of walls and whether or not they have been a good idea.
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Senate minority leader Sen. Chuck Schumer call the wall “immoral,” and join other congressional leaders claiming it would be too expensive, ineffective and that there’s no real crisis justifying the wall.
Many news media commentators support those opinions, with multiple organizations oddly using identical wording — as if emanating from some central authority?
American philosopher-poet George Santayana famously said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
So what can we learn from history about the effectiveness of walls?
According to Joshua 6:1-27 in the Old Testament around 1400 B.C., the Israelites, under orders from God, marched around the walls of Jericho — 16 miles northeast of Jerusalem — once a day for six days, carrying the Ark of the Covenant, with priests blowing the shofar horn. On the seventh day they marched seven times around the walls, blowing their horns and then with a great shout the walls came tumbling down. The Israelites then captured the city.
Archaeological excavations have discovered the remains of those walls.
The Great Wall of China — more than 13,000 miles long — including its many branches was started by the first Emperor Qin some 2,300 years ago. Over the centuries, others helped — mostly the Han and Ming dynasties.
Purpose of the Great Wall was to protect China from outside invaders — originally the Xiongnu — and in 1449 the Mongols.
“The Great Wall is a marvel of engineering and triumph of human ingenuity,” says National Geographic, “but the verdict is out on how well it worked at its primary function: keeping people out.”
China’s northern neighbors were far less prosperous and often successfully raided China for plunder — their warriors being excellent archers riding hardy ponies.
Wall guards stuck on the lonely and remote posts sometimes for years frequently took on side jobs on farms north of the wall, and in 1644, a local Ming general even opened a gate to the invaders.
A third of the wall no longer exists.
Far less impressive is Hadrian’s Wall built by the Romans in northern Britain in 122 A.D. Running east-west, coast-to-coast and just 73 miles long, its purpose was protection against Picts and other “barbarian” tribes in northern England and Scotland. The wall was 10 feet wide and 15 feet tall, with frontier troops manning interspersed forts and gates.
Ancient History Encyclopedia says the wall may also have been used to limit immigration and control smuggling.
While most of the Vatican City today is open to the public, certain areas are blocked from public access by massive walls, first built in the 9th century by Pope Leo IV for protection against Saracen pirates and other marauders.
A&E’s History Channel says, “The walls were continually expanded and modified until the reign of Pope Urban VIII in the 1640s.”
President Thomas Jefferson was the first to protect the White House with fencing in 1801 — later augmented with an 8-foot wall and sunken ditch to keep grazing livestock out. Frequent changes have been made since then.
Current wrought iron fencing around the White House is higher and topped with sharp spikes, and backed up by additional unpublicized high-tech security measures — as well as snipers and surface-to-air missiles.
The Berlin Wall was built in 1961 by the Soviet-backed East German communist regime to keep East Berliners from defecting to the West. The wall worked, though not perfectly. Ingenious escapees tried many ways to circumvent the wall — such as tunneling, river crossing on scuba and even a hot air balloon.
Those attempting to breach the wall were summarily shot by communist border guards — 140 didn’t make it.
The Cold War ended and world history changed after President Reagan told the Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev in a speech in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, “If you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization, come here to this gate. Mr. Gorbachev … tear down this wall!”
Two years later, the wall came down.
Today, the 37-mile long wall separating Israel from the violence-wracked Gaza Strip is likely the most effective border security wall in the world.
Twenty-five feet high and made of concrete and steel, the wall includes watch towers and controlled access gates.
The wall is now being extended underground (depth a secret) to thwart tunneling — with sensors added to detect tunneling activity.
Israel also has 449-miles of security barriers around the West Bank.
Harvard security scholar Bruce Schneier calls the barrier effective “in preventing suicide bombings and other attacks and fatalities with little if any apparent displacement.”
Little known is that Spain’s territory includes two small enclaves on the Mediterranean in Morocco in North Africa called Ceuta and Melilla.
They are protected by nearly 20-foot tall fences topped with razor wire and barbed wire, augmented by police patrols and high-tech equipment to stop sub-Saharan migrants who risk crossing the long and dangerous Sahara Desert to get there “in search of a better life,” according to the New York Times.
Last year 1,400 made it through, with six deaths reported — suggesting that the fencing is not effective.
When the height of similar fencing on Israel’s southern border with Egypt was increased to 26 feet, illegal migrants crossing from Egypt into Israel dropped from 14,669 in 2010 to just 14 in 2016.
The wealthy wisely understand the need of a wall to protect their estates.
Even multi-billionaire George Soros — who promotes open border policies worldwide —has his 63-acre estate in Katonah, N.Y., completely enclosed by brick walls, wooden fences, gates and armed security patrols.
President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home in Florida has perimeter security — but no wall, though Speaker Pelosi’s home in San Francisco does.
For more than 10 years, the 14 miles of border fencing separating San Diego from Tijuana has worked in stopping illegal immigrants while also saving countless lives.
Border Angels, a charitable group helping illegals, says some 10,000 have died since 1994 attempting to enter the U.S. The main causes of death are exposure — from hypothermia and dehydration — drowning, accidents, vigilante killings, intentional murders, and according to Southern Border Communities Coalition, another 83 deaths since January 2010 due to confrontations with Border Patrol agents.
The Guardian reports, “Migrants from Central America and Mexico willing to make the dangerous trip risk being victimized by thieves, criminal gangs and traffickers who sometimes take their money and abandon them in desperate conditions on either side of the U.S. border.”
No walls or fences are perfect protection. In 1982, unemployed decorator Michael Fagan climbed Buckingham Palace’s 14-foot perimeter wall topped with spikes and barbed wire, and then shinnied up a drain pipe and ended up in the Queen’s bedroom.
(Fagan was arrested, but never charged because at that time his offense was considered a civil wrong rather than a criminal offense, according to Scotland Yard. He was however committed to a psychiatric hospital and released six months later.)
Ancient walls and fortifications are no measure for effectiveness of modern barriers because of the introduction of gunpowder and cannon shot in the 14th century. Stone castles and walls were doomed forever five centuries later with the invention of explosive shells and airplanes.
Concrete and steel replaced stone, brick and wood.
Border barriers protect national sovereignty — now challenged by mass migrations worldwide for a variety of reasons and creating chaos.
As to whether or not a wall on the U.S.-Mexican border is “immoral, too expensive, ineffective or unnecessary” will no doubt continue as a philosophical and political debate.
Border Patrol agents on active duty on the southern border strongly support a wall or similar barrier, claiming they would indeed stop entry of most illegal migrants, keep out potential terrorists and criminals, curtail drug smuggling, and save lives by stopping migrants from risking the dangers.
Not everyone, however, agrees border barriers will do all of this.
But if the wall is built, it won’t take long to find out if it works and is worth the money and seemingly endless political discord.
These are historical times. What will the record teach the generations ahead?
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Contact Syd Albright at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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“Mexico and the U.S. are bound not only because of the common border, but by a shared culture and history.”
— Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, president of Mexico
“I believe we need to focus first and foremost — as Donald Trump has done with such force and such passion — on border integrity and building the wall.”
— Mike Pence, U.S. vice president
That was then…
White House Office of Management and Budget director “Mick Mulvaney is referring to the Secure Fence Act of 2006, which called for construction of 700 miles of fencing and enhanced surveillance technology, such as unmanned drones, ground-based sensors, satellites, radar coverage and cameras. Sen. Chuck Schumer and then-Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were among a bipartisan majority that voted in favor of the legislation, and it was signed into law by President George W. Bush.”
— Robert Farley, Factcheck.org (April 26, 2017)
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