Walls are the foundation of civilization. But do they work?


Border wall prototypes stand near Tijuana, Mexico, on Monday. (Guillermo Arias/AFP/Getty Images)

Donald Trump, a 21st century leader who does business around the world, owned his own jet and governs by tweet, has staked his presidency on a wall, that most medieval of civic symbols.

For the past few decades, as half a dozen presidents have struggled with how to manage the flow of migrants from south of the border, conservatives and liberals alike have often rejected a wall as an outdated tactic, a blunt instrument that might keep some people out but sends a discomfiting message about American ideals of openness and does not address the factors that drive migrants here in the first place.

Trump, who rarely gets philosophical, felt compelled to address the morality of a wall in his Oval Office address Tuesday night. The president said people “don’t build walls because they hate the people on the outside, but because they love the people on the inside.”

Wittingly or not, Trump, who will travel to the Mexican border Thursday to press his campaign for a wall, echoed what many historians have said about why even the most modern societies keep building walls: “By building a wall or fence, you’re defining your community,” said Gregory Dreicer, a historian of technology who has studied fences and nationalism.

Walls have a checkered history of maintaining separation between people. No matter how high, how long, how strong the wall, people have an uncanny knack for finding their way over, under and around.

From biblical Jericho to modern Mexico, walls have been erected to stop terrorists, immigrants, armies, drugs, weapons, foreigners, undesired races and creeds and tribes. The Romans built Hadrian’s Wall to keep out the barbarians. The Chinese built the Great Wall to keep out rival nations.


East Germans pour through the fallen Berlin Wall as a West Berliner cheers from on high in November 1989. (Carol Guzy/The Washington Post)

Walls settle scores and reinforce rows. Walls have enduring emotional sway. They’re good at sending messages. “Tear down this wall,” President Ronald Reagan said at the Berlin Wall in 1987, and some people believed that an entire empire fell as a result.

Some historians contend that walls have repeatedly proved their worth: They protect communities from perceived threats, bringing the people inside the wall together in security and camaraderie.

Yet walls can also undermine community, creating and cementing “us vs. them” antagonisms, letting wall builders avoid resolution of the problems they face.

“A wall or gate tells you every day that there are dangerous people right outside who want to destroy you,” said Setha Low, an environmental psychologist at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center and author of a book on gated communities. “Hard barriers create fear.”

Like the president, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has focused not only on the practical question of whether a wall works, but on the larger message it sends. “A wall, in my view, is an immorality,” she said. “It’s not who we are as a nation.”

But walls and other physical barriers are as American as can be.

In 1860, Abraham Lincoln’s presidential campaign, seeking to brand the candidate as a man of the people, distributed pieces of fence to voters, a reminder that Lincoln was a rail-splitter, a man who, like many American farmers and landowners, built fences. From the nation’s earliest days, when only white male landowners could vote, many built fences on their land to show their neighbors they were eligible voters, Dreicer said.

In recent decades, U.S. developers have built gated communities to keep out criminals, salesmen, vandals. Today, more than 14 percent of Americans who live in subdivisions live behind walls or gates, according to the Census Bureau’s American Housing Survey.

But walls also run contrary to American ideals of openness and individualism. “Don’t fence me in,” says the classic Cole Porter song. “Oh, give me land, lots of land under starry skies above/ Don’t fence me in.”

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As President Trump heads to the border to demand $5.7 billion for a wall, it marks another chapter in the boundary’s tortured history, which began unfolding a century ago


International Street, shown in 1929 with the border line staked out down the center, separates Nogales, Ariz., and Nogales, Mexico. The U.S. Immigration and Customs station flies the American flag, right center, and the Mexican office is across the line, at left center. (AP)

On an August afternoon in 1918, a mysterious man approached the U.S.-Mexico border in the bustling town of Nogales.

For decades, the boundary between the two countries had been little more than an imaginary line in the sand, marked only by the occasional — often crumbling — pillar in the Sonoran desert. But rampant smuggling, the Mexican Revolution and the outbreak of World War I had split the border town in two, sowing fear and stoking tensions.

As the man walked toward Mexico, where Mexican soldiers were waving him on, a U.S. Customs inspector suddenly ordered him to halt.

Unheeded and suspecting the man was a smuggler, the customs inspector drew his gun.

So did two American soldiers, one of whom would later say he thought the man was one of the many German spies rumored to be trying to draw Mexico into war with the United States.

Yards away, Mexican officials also shouldered their rifles. When one fired, hitting an American soldier in the face, both sides of the border erupted in gunfire.

“A battle breaks out, killing 12 people, including the mayor of Nogales, Sonora,” said Rachel St. John, a history professor at the University of California at Davis who wrote about the incident in her 2012 book, “Line in the Sand: A History of the Western U.S.-Mexico Border.”

The two-hour shootout marked the end of an era of easy movement across the boundary in Nogales, she said, as Mexican and American officials quickly agreed to put up a six-foot fence through the middle of the border town.

Today, the fence is now a 20-foot-high row of steel beams, recently reinforced with razor wire.


In 1882, the United States and Mexico formed a joint commission to resurvey, remap and remark the border. (Adrees Latif/Reuters)

As President Trump travels to the border Thursday to demand $5.7 billion funding for a wall, his high-stakes visit draws attention to the past century of wild, often unsuccessful efforts to fortify the U.S.-Mexico frontier.

Long before the perceived threat was Central American asylum seekers, it was German spies and Mexican revolutionaries, prostitutes and polygamists, Chinese immigrants and cattle infected with “Texas fever.”

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