Sunday, August 30, 2015

And the Walls Came Tumbling Up

"Walls, then, are built not for security, but for a sense of security. The distinction is important, as those who commission them know very well. What a wall satisfies is not so much a material need as a mental one. Walls protect people not from barbarians, but from anxieties and fears, which can often be more terrible than the worst vandals. In this way, they are built not for those who live outside them, threatening as they may be, but for those who dwell within. In a certain sense, then, what is built is not a wall, but a state of mind." (Costica Bradatan, "Scaling the ‘Wall in the Head,’" New York Times, November 27, 2011.)
The Berlin Wall comes down in 1989 after separating
East from West for 28 years.
Early on the morning of November 10, 1989, I rousted my two sons, aged 11 and 15, out of their beds and parked their sleepy bodies in front of the television so they could see what had been happening overnight. The Berlin Wall was coming down.  It was built in 1961 to prevent citizens from the Communist-controlled East Germany and East Berlin from escaping to the West. Over time it had become a stark symbol of the Cold War, no more so than in 1987 when President Ronald Reagan stood at its foot and demanded that the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev "tear down this wall."

To see this wall coming down brick by brick was a slice of history I didn't want my boys to miss. After all, as a naturalized U.S. citizen whose family relocated here from Canada when I was twelve years old, I had been schooled in the inscription appearing on the Statue of Liberty: 
"Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
So, having lived in a free Canada (though not tired, poor, huddled, or wretched) and in a free United States, I found the notion of a wall along national borders to be somehow incongruous, not to mention impractical.

In fact, walls and fences usually generate negative images. A few years ago a neighbor built a five-foot high wooden fence around their backyard because they had acquired a large dog and needed to keep it penned up. I understood the reason but was saddened by the loss of a clear expanse of land across the lots that covered our side of the cul-de-sac.

The Great Wall of China stretches not only across the miles
but also across the millennia.
I have long read about, and subsequently had the opportunity to visit, the Great Wall of China, which was built in fits and starts over the centuries. What is commonly thought of as the Great Wall today was built during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and took several hundred years to complete. If you count all sections of the Wall that ever existed, the process took over 2000 years. Obviously, it wasn't a short-term solution to the problem of keeping out the Mongols, Manchus, and other lowlights.

The present election season has ushered in a non-stop volley of nonsense about walls and immigrants that, while it generates both cheers and chuckles, has some serious and troubling issues at the core. Some of it tracks back to the 2012 election when Michelle Bachman proposed a fence to line the U.S./Mexico border and Herman Cain one-upped her by suggesting the fence be electrified. I guess the idea was to hear the hissing sound of illegals hitting the fence, just like mosquitoes make a similar sound when they fly into those bug zappers we put on our decks.

The 2016 candidates are all having to cope with explaining how sealing off a 1900 mile border with a 10-foot high wall is both feasible and affordable. Meanwhile, one of the candidates has now suggested that he would be open to building a wall to secure the U.S./Canada border as well. (Trust me on this, folks, I know a lot of Canadians and none of them have ever expressed a desire to slither on their bellies from Saskatchewan into Montana so as to be eligible for our healthcare system.)

Another candidate was inspired by a FedEx commercial and noted how they tracked their packages so efficiently. Why not apply that principle to immigrants who come in with legal visas but overstay their time limit, he asked? I suppose we could tattoo a barcode on their rump and just have them scan that wherever they go so we can track them down if they're overdue on their visitors pass. Or their library card.

This is great material for the late night comedians, but taking this either too lightly or too seriously has its own problems. I understand that we have an issue with securing borders and I know we are in dire need of immigration reform. But we are dealing with a 1,954-mile border and untold billions of dollars of unbudgeted costs, not to mention constitutional questions, profound issues of land acquisitions, environmental impact statements required by law, and fistfuls of problems that are already known, let alone those not yet known. Simply declaring that it can be done doesn't get it done, no matter how much bravado accompanies the declaration.

There is another deep-seated issue here, one I am not qualified to do anything about other than mention, deferring instead to psychologists and other specialists. But we have learned in school and life that we need to break down our walls. They prevent us from knowing ourselves, keep us from understanding one another, and cut us off from the Source of our being. This is the personal cost being exacted by a national agenda. Soon we will be walling off our cities, enclosing our homes, and locking ourselves in rather than locking others out.

There is something wrong, even slimy, about all this talk of walling ourselves off. It is starting to feel like the kind of society we have deplored, always pointing instead to our freedoms, our cultural melting pot, our respect for others. But now we are demonizing other countries and cultures and buying up bricks and mortar to build walls of exclusion, a fool's errand unlike any I have seen.

In a global society where our place in the world is more important than it has ever been, we are choosing walls instead of bridges. This is starting to have a deleterious effect on our national psyche. We are applauding crudity, disrespecting cultures, living in false fears, and making a laughing stock of our country around the world.

Walls are symbols of our failures. We talk of building walls because we have been unable to solve our problems with word and deed, and now we build a wall of blame that will become a wall of shame.

If we do this, some day in the not far distant future a Reaganesque leader will stand at this border and in a voice with a rising crescendo declare, "America, tear down this wall!"

And the world will cheer.

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