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Fences, Barriers, Borders, Security, Comity

2009/11/26

Today’s post is a little different.  It looks at what things may mean, aside from their physical presence.  An earlier version first appeared as an emailed comment on October 21, 2009 to JStreet.org, an emerging interesting group noted for expanding the Middle Eastern conversation.  Here’s the item at JStreet/Settlements that got my attention…

[Edit note: This edit modifies “fence” in the paragraph beginning, “In relative terms, …”]

Security Barrier & Two-state Sustainability:  “J Street supports the concept of a security barrier as an important element of Israel’s defense, but believes that the barrier must be located along an internationally recognized border.  Its present route has confiscated land and separated Palestinians from the jobs, health care and family. It will have to be relocated in many sections as part of a final status agreement.”

So let’s look at that for a moment.  Isn’t it possible that it’s exactly “the concept of a security barrier” that makes a barricaded border into a mutual membrane that filters out the directly accessible economic and individual interactions that define viable social and political life?  Can the term “barrier” end up turning the meaning of “security” upside down?

It’s not like Europe hasn’t torn itself apart twice in the past century, and numerous times prior to that (see History_of_Europe).  Yet, consider that the 1930-1939 barrier attempted between two European antagonists has become the signature term for a futile defensive crouch.  For details, look at the Maginot_Line polity and policy.  Just as the Line tried to substitute concrete for wisdom, mobile forces, and firepower, so an ongoing barrier says that an ongoing relationship will be grounded in a physical manifestation of an Existential disbelief in any shared positive reality between the people on the ground.

In relative terms, the Berlin_Wall outlived the Maginot Line by decades, but it didn’t buy durable security for the German Democratic Republic.  The poet Robert Frost wrote that “good fences make good neighbors” (see Mending_Wall), but it seems also true that solid walls make prisoners on both sides.  At least a low stone fence lets air, light, and sight pass over, and provides a place to rest one’s forearms while discussing the day with a neighbor.  And unlike a high wall or barrier, a simple stone fence is a mutual respect for a shared larger space.  That’s a security no barrier can provide.

Once the idea of “barrier” digs into the mind, other examples come into focus.  There’s Hadrian’s_Wall to keep Romans safe in Britannia.  There’s the Great_Wall_of_China to keep out invaders from the 5th Century BC to the 16th Century Current Era.  Each kept people busy and delayed incursions, but their need for continuous work indicates neither succeeded in staving off depredations as the respective centers lost their way.  Makes one wonder about the ability to process lessons learned.  See current US efforts to paste walls of steel (South) and procedure (North) to cover policy shortfalls affecting both borders (U.S.-border-policy-question, United_States_border).

So there’s something seductive about a wall.  People keep building them to feel good by doing something, anything, to avoid doing something more insightful.  Their record says it’s more likely walls end up looking like a lunge for a security blanket, than like real clarity of mind.  Maybe simple fences to mark shared spaces aren’t so simple-minded after all.

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