A Meditation on the Building of Walls
By Bernard Weiner
Co-Editor, The Crisis Papers
May 8, 2007
I know there is truth in poet Robert Frost's famous line in "Mending
Wall" (quoting the man living next door) that "good fences make good
neighbors." But, in a political context, I can't help but also believe
that the creation of barriers between human beings is a testament to
failure, and is often self-destructive at that.
Frost's own voice in the poem raises the reasonable thought:
I built a wall I'd ask to know/What I was walling in or walling out..."
In my college days, I got to hear the Great American Poet read "Mending
Wall" -- all sensitive and silver-haired and incredibly ancient, it
seemed to me -- and was impressed by Frost's calmness and clarity of
thought. He came across as a wise, gentle soul.
I was entranced by the grand metaphor with which he was working.
Consider: A fence, a wall, can be built to keep something out (the Great
Wall of China) or something in (the Berlin Wall). That could be people,
On a larger scale, walls and other barriers are designed to protect the
status quo and stop change in its tracks. But before we get deeper into
that thought, let's examine just a few fences and walls, and see if and
how they work.
THE EXTERNAL WALLS
The Berlin Wall was designed to keep East
Germany's put-upon residents, chafing under their bleak Communist
rule, from fleeing to the lively, prosperous West, and to try to
keep Western ideas and practices from penetrating into regimented
East Germany society. There were periodic escapes over, around and
under the Wall, but, by and large, the barrier worked for nearly
three decades: East Germany became a locked-down society in all
senses of that term. Eventually, the Wall, which had become a
larger-than-life symbol of Cold War repression, was torn down as
Communist rule decomposed in the Eastern Bloc.
Israel has nearly finished its giant
Separation, ostensibly to keep out would-be Palestinian
terrorists. It seems to have worked to a large extent in this
regard, but is no less controversial. Israel claims that the wall is
"temporary," and easily could be removed if and when peace arrives
in the Middle East. In other words, it's permanent. Rather than
bringing peace and quiet, the wall exacerbates anger and resentment.
In building it, the Israelis carried out a blatant annexation of
Palestinian land that stands as a clear impediment to peace; indeed,
it is a gross incitement to continued violence, since major Israeli
settlements, on land supposedly reserved for Palestinians, are now
placed on the Israel side of the wall.
The Bush Administration is starting to build parts
of a huge barrier fence along the Mexican border to keep out
hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants seeking a better life in
the U.S. Whether that wall will be effective is problematic; it's
virtually impossible to seal a several-thousand mile border. (And
let us not forget that there is also a fairly porous border to the
north of the United States, also several thousand miles long.) As
with so many such barriers, the border fences envisioned for the
Southwest are designed more for domestic-political reasons --
although they do not take into account the power of the agribusiness
lobby, which wants cheap, non-unionized labor to harvest America's
As a way of tamping down the sectarian violence in
Baghdad, the U.S. military has constructed a huge concrete
barrier around a Sunni neighborhood, ostensibly to keep Shia
death-squads from entering. The local residents claim they are being
ghettoized -- using the analogy of the Warsaw Ghetto where the Nazis
crowded Jews -- and thus are more vulnerable with the wall in place
since the residents are more tempting targets, massed all in one
place. Also, they complain, it's more difficult for them to escape
when the wall is breached by killers -- or when those guarding the
entry and exit turn out to be their executioners.
In general, these kinds of walls and fences represent
unresolved social matters, and remain in place as long as the political
conflict remains "hot." On the Israel/Palestine dispute, I wouldn't hold
my breath waiting for any movement toward peace because of the wall. The
prospects for a peace treaty and negotiations for mutual projects seem
woefully out of reach, mainly because each side is effectively ruled by
extremists who simply want the other side to disappear and figure
violence is the way to make the disappearance happen. Such a policy does
little but stimulate a never-ending cycle of vengeance.
When Communism imploded in the Soviet Union and its Eastern European
satellites, there was no need for a barrier wall in Germany and so it
came down virtually overnight. The new political realities ruled rather
than prejudice and military fears. That wall had lasted three decades --
its existence spanning a full generation of citizens -- and then, poof,
was no more. In short, walls can be taken down in short order (Belfast's
wall separating Catholics and Protestants is another example) once the
political realities shift.
THE INTERNAL WALLS
There is another kind of wall, in some ways much more significant and
socially malignant. It's the wall that separates humankind from accurate
information, often because of closed religious minds.
The two major colliding forces in today's world have walled themselves
into ignorance and Dark Ages-type thinking. Extremist Islam and
fundamentalist Christianity both believe they are doing "God's work" in
opposing "infidels," those refusing to recognize the "one true God";
those "non-believers" need to be crushed because they represent the most
nefarious kind of "evil."
Osama bin Laden and his like-minded supporters would be happiest if
society returned to the theology and societal organization of the Muslim
caliphate from the 7th to 11th centuries. George W. Bush and his neo-con
and fundamentalist supporters would be happier in an old-fashioned
colonialist world, where a "Pax Americana" would reign supreme. Each
side believes that if you're not on their side, you're ipso facto an
enemy and should suffer the consequences. Neither side is amenable to
compromise and negotiation, which explosive situation leads inexorably
to the deaths of untold numbers of innocents who just happen to be in
the way ("collateral damage").
Extremist Islam wants nothing to do with modernity and commerce, which
bring with them all sorts of contemporary "depravities" and
"immoralities." Fundamentalist Christianity, with Bush as a key
representative of that movement, wants nothing to do with the proven
facts of modern science and with facts delivered to him by the
professional intelligence agencies. There is no room on either side for
the concepts of toleration and power-sharing. It's "victory" or nothing
-- a "crusade" for "righteousness and purity," based on a foundation of
problematic beliefs and self-righteous religious faith.
There are plenty of folks in the middle, but the violence-griddle is
kept so hot by the extremists that a massive attack is usually enough to
frighten the timid middle into at least a tacit alliance with those who
promise to protect them from the dastardly "Other."
CHANGE AS A FRIGHT AGENT
Earlier, above, I suggested that walls are generally built to support
the status quo and delay the possibility of significant societal change.
Extremist, rigid religious thought cannot abide that kind of change; to
them, change is "blasphemous," "heretical," and ultimately terrifying.
Thus, they attempt to stop the world by building strong, permanent
barriers (actual and ideological) to keep out the scary thoughts, the
Let me be clear: There definitely are terrorist types worth being scared
of and defended against. But the rush to erect walls and barriers
against entire masses of people is what lazy, ignorant people do. It
takes too much creative mental work to come up with alternative ways of
incorporating change, compromise, tolerance, into their lives. To deal
creatively with change, you actually have to open your mind, and
sometimes even your heart, to deal with people and ideas that are
Doing so, in an open way, is the beginning of wisdom, and of human
progress. You let the light in, and also let the darkness in, and then
you fashion a way to incorporate the two at the same time in order to
move forward in something approximating harmony and peace. Doing so
doesn't have to mean you love and accept everything that comes your way
in this fast-changing world, but it does mean you have to figure out a
way of dealing with the new information and the new people. If things
are exceptionally tense, you make treaties and remain suspicious, but at
least you've figured out a way to co-exist together relatively
Doing that has got to be better than a Dark Ages-type of smashing "the
Others" over the head with clubs because you are pissed off by, and
frightened of, them.
SOME PERSONAL REFLECTIONS
Finally, some personal observations that perhaps may prove useful in
meditating on the question of walls and barriers:
I think I went into journalism as a young man (starting in my teens)
because I needed to figure out how the world works and how I could
maneuver successfully in it. In that regard, the hunt for truth became
my friend. If I could open myself to how the world really operated --
the good parts, the bad parts, the ugly and scary parts -- I could
somehow stabilize myself in what seemed like a very chaotic, frightening
social system. Truth provided the glue that held it (and a shaky me)
As a bone fide reporter, I was encouraged to ask questions, amass
information and then attempt to sort it all out in some coherent
fashion. Likewise, travel outside the "safe container" of home and
homeland yielded more information about different ways of thinking and
living; it was journalism in a new sort of way, and I did indeed keep
journals of my travels, trying to organize what I had learned by such
adventuring around the country and abroad.
Good journalism, of course, constantly gets one in trouble, since the
status-quo forces arrayed against truth-telling are legion and powerful.
And these days, with an extremist regime in control in Washington, D.C.
-- one more inclined to avoid reality, even stomp on it when it appears
-- good journalism is all too rare. Mostly, the institutional,
conglomerate-owned media (the owners of which reflect much the same
economic goals and worldview as those in government) tend to flatter the
rulers and shade and conceal the truth -- in effect becoming another
"wall" blocking our view of the real world. That's why the free-wheeling
internet is so valuable as a corrective, with numerous bloggers and
reporters dedicated to opening windows on what's really going on behind
the ever-present spin barriers.
Those in power who put walls and fences between themselves and the hunt
for truth cannot deal effectively with reality and risk societal
disaster. Good example: How CheneyBush took America into the catastrophe
that is the Iraq War. They are destined for ignominious failure because
they long ago slid off the reality tracks, and refuse to acknowledge
their mistaken judgment, ideology and policy. They are heading that
sliding train straight for the cliff of ultimate failure and don't seem
to care if they take everyone else down with them.
CheneyBush have demonstrated time and again that their personalities are
so stunted and insecure that there is no way they would be able to
acknowledge the depth of their mistakes, their moral responsibility for
failures, and their warped ideologies. This means that those of us
desiring to save our country, and save those who are otherwise destined
to die and be maimed by their participation in this militarist madness,
need to remove our ostensible "leaders" as quickly as possible.
At the very least, there would seem to be sufficient evidence of enough
high crimes, misdemeanors and malfeasance to justify the initiation of
impeachment hearings ASAP.
There's too much at stake to just let it ride; even with the Democrats
starting to exercise their oppositional muscles, the continuing damage
the CheneyBush Administration can do in the next year-and-a-half --
including an unprovoked attack on Iran -- is too excruciatingly awful to
contemplate. It's impeachment time -- let's get on with it.
Copyright 2007, by Bernard Weiner
Bernard Weiner, Ph.D., has taught
government & international relations at universities in California and
Washington, worked as a writer/editor at the San Francisco Chronicle for two
decades, and currently serves as co-editor of The Crisis Papers (www.crisispapers.org).
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