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Editorial
Last Updated: 11/01/2007
Building Walls in the Free World
Ross Ryan

It may seem odd to dedicate this November issue of the Peace and Conflict Monitor to the building of walls directly after our October issue, which dealt with globalization and the seeming irrelevance of national boundaries, but such are the ironies of our time. Only twenty years after former US President Ronald Reagan famously called for former General Secretary of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall, walls are on the rise again. And this time, they are being built and/or maintained by nations from what Reagan referred to in his same speech at the Berlin Wall as the “free world” – the United States, Britain (in Ireland), Israel, and Spain (in Morocco) being only the most glaring examples.

Taken together with the overpowering force of commercial globalization, people on the outside of many of these walls may be forgiven for feeling, as Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has put it, that rich nations practice protectionist policies when it suits their interests even as they urge poorer nations to continue relaxing border restrictions for the ready access of foreign businesses. Certainly, for average citizens of walled out nations, the freedoms of the free world – freedoms of movement and travel in particular – seem to be enjoyed at a level somewhere above their heads. While corporations may be free to move their investments and operations from one country to another with fewer and fewer national restrictions, the movements of actual human beings are obstructed by fences and walls.

Of course, advocates of such barriers argue that they are needed for practical reasons of security. The people behind www.weneedafence.com, for example, argue that a separation barrier between Mexico and America will keep America safe by controlling immigration, blocking the supply of controlled substances, and reducing the risk of terrorism. It is my own opinion that the best such barriers can do is to provide an illusion of security. At worst, they may actually fuel conflict, impede peace processes, and promote sectarianism.

The first questionable claim made by those lobbying for a fence across the southern border of the US is that immigrants are automatically a threat, counted among drug smugglers and terrorists. America, of all nations, should recognize the value of immigration, given the large percentage of foreign born scientists, artists, athletes, soldiers, and workers who have brought prosperity to that country, many of them without proper documentation. Demonizing the very people on whose labour the economy depends is a sure symptom of irrational xenophobia, and calls to mind the old adage about biting the hand that feeds you.

Of course immigrants are not automatically perfect either; they are simply human beings and, as such, deserve to be treated with the same dignity and respect we would like to be treated with ourselves. As High Representative of the EU Common Security and Foreign Policy Javier Solana told a group of reporters in Mexico last May, “A wall that separates one country from another is not something that I like or that the European Union members like […] we don’t think walls are reasonable instruments to stop people from crossing into a country; […potential immigrants should be treated] like people, not like criminals” (CNN 03/05/2007). Broadly speaking, the circumstances driving immigration are understandable and have affected all human societies at one time or another. They should be used, therefore, as a natural starting point for cross cultural integration and mutual benefit, not as an excuse for isolation and exclusionism.

As far as drug smuggling is concerned, even a remote familiarity with the principles of supply and demand should be enough to dispel the myth that a wall – no matter how high or wide – could possibly stop the supply of controlled substances so long as American citizens continue to demand them. The only likely effect of building such a concrete symbol of prohibition would be, ironically, to increase the value of illicit substances and therefore encourage internal corruption and the activities of international organized crime.

The other reason to build the wall, terrorism, is possibly the most emotionally charged and politically sensitive of all the terms used to describe potential threats to the free world today. Before recoiling in fear at the very thought of “OTMs” (“other than Mexicans”) sneaking across the desert into the southern states of the US, however, and paying millions of dollars for the construction and maintenance of a giant security barrier to keep them out, I should hope that the American public would demand to know exactly how many of the OTMs apprehended at the Mexico/America border until now have actually been found to be part of Al Qaeda or some other terrorist network. In other words, the costs of the project should relate to the actual risks, not mere speculation or emotional manipulation.

It is of no little significance to this cost/risk analysis that there are enough weapons (conventional, nuclear, or improvised) as well as violent ideas for conflict resolution and political persuasion north, east, and west of the Mexican border to ensure that terror and insecurity will persist, unaffected by the construction of even the biggest and most repulsive barrier possible. Peace and security, in any meaningful sense, requires much more empathy and thoughtfulness, and much more human interaction than any such wall can possibly offer.

As a final thought, it is worth noting that this latest geopolitical fad of wall building is nothing new. The citizens of Ur, Troy, and Copan all ducked behind walls in the ancient world, and ultimately found the security they provided to be as illusionary as that of the Soviet’s Iron Curtain in the modern age. Surely we have realized by now that security cannot come from guarding the lines that divide us from one another. The only chance we have is to unite as a global community and turn our attention to the sources of insecurity that we commonly face: poverty, environmental degradation, oppression, disease, ignorance, and war.

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