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Physical Security and Politics: Will Walls Work?

Apr 24, 20077 mins
Physical Security

Good story in the April 23, 2007 New York Times about opposition to a wall being built to separate Sunni and Shia neighbors in Iraq. Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki said he was going to order a halt to construction of the wall; the American military was less committed to abandoning the project, and the Times reports that Walls are part of a broader security strategy in the country for the U.S.What do you know, the next day the Times reports that American officials were backing away from the plan because of the severe backlash from both sides and the collective acclaim for al-Maliki after he announced the halt on construction.In a strange twist on the politics of walls, a barrier meant to divide Sunni and Shia has actually united people from both sects against the American military, the ones proposing the build the structure in order to enhance security. Sunnis in the Adhamiya neighborhood that was to be split by the wall professed support for the Shiite prime minister in a peaceful rally, a man some Sunnis believe leads a party that oppresses them.Yet the wall has brought them together. In fact, the Times story suggests the wall controversy has become a kind of symbol of local discontent over the American military security strategy which grinds daily life to a halt in traffic jams, check points and ultimately ineffectual security.The Prime Minister was quoted as saying the wall in Baghdad reminded people of “other walls,” a statement many consider a thinly veiled reference to the new “separation fence” dividing Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank.You might remember also that President Bush signed a bill last year to build a 700-mile wall along the Mexican border in the political run-up to elections, when immigration became the divisive issue du jour. You might not know that India also built a wall along its disputed border with Pakistan in Kashmir.All of which means, as a security device, walls are back. They had fallen out of favor. The rise of industrial warfare was also the fall of walls as defensive security structures, which makes sense given a wall’s ineptitude against planes, tanks, long-range weapons and so forth. In a fine piece on walls, Washington Post Staff Writer Joel Garreau wrote about how the French Maginot line did little to stop advancing Germans during World War II. Even before Maginot, all the way back to Rome’s Hadrian’s Wall in Northern England and the Great Wall of China (actually a system of Walls), historians have lamented the relative ineffectiveness of walls as security devices compared to the expectations they’re freighted with. Often, historians say, walls have the reverse of their intended security effect because they stir animosity amongst those being kept out, or, in the case of the Berlin Wall, kept in. They say walls more deeply divide already divided people and give rise to violence instead of quelling it. CSO itself took a wry look at historical walls and their relative ineffectiveness in Debreifing. And in an excellent 2003 piece on NPR by Debra Schifrin, one expert quotes a Mexican migrant who says that if a cow runs out of grass to graze on one side of a wall, it will find away across to eat the grass on the other side. “So he was like, ‘Are we going to be stupider than a cow'” the expert tells Schifrin. Listen here.It’s interesting to note, as some historians do in the above stories, that the notion that walls were purely defensive security features on the landscape is probably erroneous, thus saying that walls always fail because they’re breached is a bit misleading. Walls served other purposes. They were used as tolls, to collect money and control, not prevent, trade. Some, like Hadrian’s Wall, even had commercial outposts built into and around them. Walls were a means for those with established economic and political clout to maintain it. If you controlled the wall, you controlled the flow of people and goods, and thus maintained power.Two things are different about the current generation of walls like Israel’s and India’s. One, they’re rarely called that anymore. In the West Bank and Kashmir, along the Rio Grande, they’re “fences.” The reason’s obvious, a good fence sounds pleasant in that Robert Frost sense of something that makes a good neighbor, whereas a wall sounds more like a forceful political statement or strategy. It evokes Soviet Bloc Berlin, not rural New England. This is how language evolves now, through marketing and politics. The second difference with these walls is that they are actually technological and physical systems, not a just a tall vertical barrier. In fact, now, the actual wall portion of a wall is a relatively minor component of a defensive structure that includes razor wire, ditches, roads, surveillance and other obstacles. Venture capitalists, military contractors and overheated marketers would call them “smart fences” or something like that. Israel calls its wall a “multi layered composite obstacle” on its Ministry of Defense website. Here’s a graphic primer on it from the site:

This picture doesn’t highlight some of the high-tech features of Israel’s wall. The intrusion detection fence, for example, is loaded with remote sensors to detect anomalies. The “observation system” is high-tech surveillance with motion detection and low-light detection and other features. The sand running parallel to the fence is even smoothed to capture footprints.So why are walls back? Schifrin takes a stab at that question, suggesting it’s related to the asymmetric threat of terrorism and cause-based, not geography-based, strife. Instead of fighting armies, countries are now fighting movements, she says. The world may be flat, as Thomas Friedman says, but not everyone likes that. They want to section off the areas where the actual ideas are bred that threaten their version of that flat world. Thus Israelis and Palestinians are divided. And in Baghdad, a wall was conceived when sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shiites erupted. It reminds one of the “Peace Wall” in Belfast dividing Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods. These walls don’t even divide people with radically different religions, but rather different views into the same religion. In some ways, walls like these can be seen as statements on the social, political and economic progress, or lack thereof, of a region. A wall suggests a lack of stability. An inability for people who must co-exist to tolerate or understand each other. Instead, walls cynically reinforce differences by adding a physical barrier to the existing ideological one.Finally, at least one group of artists wants to upend the entire trend of new walls. An Australian outfit called artsConnect is planning a multi-media exhibition in Jerusalem this July called Challenging Walls 2007. It will include art displayed on both sides of the West Bank wall. Photography at the exhibit will focus on the lives of people who live in areas affected by such walls, including Cyprus, Germany, Israel, Northern Ireland and the West Bank. The event will also include arts workshops for both Israeli and Palestinian children and a conference for researchers on the topic of walls and borders.Even though the walls are still there, physically, it’s a small attempt to tear them down, at least figuratively.– Scott Berinato