Don’t fence me out

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(HOST) When Congress recently passed legislation to increase the security of our borders, commentator Vic Henningsen began thinking about walls and their effectiveness.

(HENNINGSEN) “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall” says Robert Frost, and he’s right. Most of us think of walls simply as marking where one property or set of responsibilities ends and another begins. But the walls historians remember had a more specific purpose. Most were built to protect what lay behind and to separate that from something else, usually something threatening.

On one side, civilization, peace, order; on the other, barbarism, darkness.

In the third century B.C, the Qin Emperor built the first Great Wall of China to keep invaders from his newly unified “Celestial Kingdom”. Rebuilt again and again, ultimately extending some fourteen hundred miles, the Great Wall is visible from the moon. But it was only intermittently effective. The Mongols simply went around it.

The Roman Emperor Hadrian built a wall at the furthest extent of his domain – on what is now the border between England and Scotland – to keep out the fierce Picts. Of course, they managed to break through and pillage far to the south every time Roman backs were turned.

Prior to World War II, France proclaimed the invincibility of the Maginot Line protecting it from German invasion. The Germans, apparently, didn’t get the message and sent their tanks where the line wasn’t.

The Berlin Wall was intended to keep people in, not out, but it worked no better than the others. How many of us were thrilled to hear of yet another dramatic escape over, under, or through it – or recall its destruction by those it was meant to imprison?

Some barriers were created for economic reasons. For over fifty years in the 19th century, the Great Customs Hedge – a wall of thorns almost twenty-five hundred miles long maintained by twelve thousand workers – prevented smuggling and controlled the distribution of salt in much of British India. They abandoned it when salt depletion contributed to famines killing over five million people.

In the early 1900’s, Australia built two thousand miles of fence to protect western grazing lands from rabbits and other agricultural pests. The Rabbit-Proof Fence became a cultural artifact, but it didn’t successfully control the rabbit menace.

Since 2002, Israel has tried to protect itself from Palestinian violence by constructing a concrete barrier winding throughout the country.It may have cut down on suicide bombings but it has also enhanced hostility between the groups.

And recently, our Congress authorized a seven hundred mile fence along the Mexican border to prevent illegal immigration.

Frost also said, “Good fences make good neighbors”, but that’s only true if those on both sides believe in the reason for the barrier and collaborate to keep it up. Otherwise it’ll just be an expensive inconvenience – for everyone.

Vic Henningsen is a teacher and historian.

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