The Bush Administration in 2006 passed the Secure Fence Act and work began on constructing a steel and concrete wall along 700 miles of border between the United States and Mexico.
They did not start at one end and keep going, or from the two extremes with plans to meet in the middle, as occurred with the Transcontinental Railroad completed in 1869, finally meeting in Promontory Summit, Utah. Modern thinking decreed instead that they erect individual sections with infrared cameras and sensors creating a ‘virtual’ barrier over the empty spaces. Four years later, while the fence was still incomplete and costing $2.8 million a mile, plans to extend and make it double-layered never made it through Congress, and the project remains unfinished.
Walls create a bipolar mind-set and are always controversial. The Berlin Wall was ostensibly built to keep the corrupting ways of the West out, when in reality it rose up around the Eastern Bloc to keep those inside sealed in. When President Reagan went to Berlin in 1987 and declared at the Brandenburg Gate: ‘Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall,’ the wall was already crumbling, less the result of western pressure than of East Germans watching West German television with its endless array of consumer goodies freely available on the other side of the wall.
The most famous folly of them all is the Great Wall of China. First, we should dispel the fiction that it is the only man-made structure that can be seen from space with the naked eye. It can’t, as China’s first astronaut Yang Liwei reported in 2003.
The Great Wall stretches 3,915 miles across China. Work started 2,000 years ago and carried on through numerous dynasties. During the 14th century under the Mings, life in Peking became more sumptuous, the passion for ornamentation revealed in their incomparable porcelain and reflected in the elaborate craftsmanship on the Wall.
The Wall provided the Chinese a symbol of unification, one people behind one fortification. But the opposite is equally true. The Wall represented China’s isolation from the rest of the world, as do the barriers dividing the Israelis and Palestinians, presenting the potential for history to repeat itself. The Walls of Jericho in the Bible story came tumbling down when Joshua‘s Israelite army marched around the city blowing trumpets. Does Mossad, the Israeli secret service, monitor Palestinians learning to play brass instruments? I guess that’s classified.
Unlike the Israeli barriers, the Berlin Wall and the controversial U.S. Border Fence, the Great Wall of China was not conceived to keep the Mongol hordes out, as the people commonly thought. The shrewd Chinese emperors were fully aware that a wall can be circumvented, and this one’s immense length was too great to be effectively manned by border guards.
What the Wall did was keep the people in a state of fear and provide them with the belief that the government was doing something to protect them. The Wall was built in sections. Each section was erected over a period of many years with a young nobleman from the city in charge. While he was in the wilderness competing with his contemporaries to raise the best bit of wall, he was not in the capital puffing on an opium pipe and plotting against the emperor. The construction provided work, a communal purpose, its sheer magnitude during the 1,500 years of creation a sense of eternity.
The Mexican drug cartels, people-smugglers and fruit pickers looking for a better life must have read their history and learned from the Chinese. In spite of there being 20,000 U.S. border guards, the most at any time in U.S. history, the number of crossings remains unchanged, and the $4 billion spent thus far on the Border Fence stands as a monument to that sense of infinity more often forgotten than remembered.