The Politics of Walls

Natalie Tan – Singapore

Once again, walls have taken center stage in world politics. This time, it’s a proposed wall along the US-Mexico border that has become a point of contention between warring US presidential candidates. With the rhetoric surrounding walls being the topic de jour, it’s worth asking– what purpose would a wall actually serve? The practical benefits are not clear. Historically, walls have protected inhabitants from perceived threats, but also divided them, reduced their mobility and limited the free circulation of information. One argument is that walls are primarily built to address the psychosomatic insecurities of the inhabitants of a particular geographic space. Walls not only protect the interests of a particular community, but also contribute to the construction of psychological walls in the minds of those who live within them.

“A nation without borders is not a nation. There must be a wall across the southern border.” This is one of three immigration reform principles forwarded by Donald Trump – the presumptive nominee of the Republican Party for the 2016 US presidential election. Yet, this is not the first time walls have been the focus of politics, walls have always had an association with politics and security. Many of us may still recall the rise and fall of the Berlin Wall, and more recently, the controversies surrounding the construction of the Israeli West Bank barrier. While proponents of such walls may argue that these structures serve to protect communities from those who wish them harm, are the function of these barriers really so cut-and-dry?

As significant as their role has been throughout history to protect human populations, it is worth contemplating if such walls are even larger in the private spaces of our minds. And whether these walls continue to exist in the deep recesses of our minds even after their physical destruction, continuing to inform our thought-processes and worldviews. For instance, in the minds of many former East (and West) Berliners in contemporary Berlin society, the Berlin Wall is still quite intact. The Berlin Wall has given birth to a psychological disorder known as Mauerkrankheit -Wall Disease which was first diagnosed Dr. Dietfried Mueller-Hegemann, a psychiatrist in East Berlin in 1973. In his research, he identified that East Germans who were living close to the wall were suffering “rage, dejection, and alcoholism —and were more likely to kill themselves. And the closer to the physical wall his patients lived, the more acute their disorders” (Di Cintio, 2014). Decades after the fall of Berlin Wall, there are still a significant number of Berliners who are struggling with Mauerkrankheit. The psychological manifestations of such walls far outlive the lifespans of their corporeal antecedents. Walls such as the Berlin Wall or the Israeli West Bank barrier are built mainly to separate communities along their political and religious differences. Walls emphasize these differences and provide tangible manifestation for separation.

Perhaps, then, walls serve to satisfy a psychosomatic need for “safety,” rather than providing actual security – a phenomenon understood and exploited by ‘wall proponents,’ who are themselves aware that such structures largely function to satisfy an illusory human need for safety. While such walls may play a significant role in protecting a nation from its own psychological fears and anxieties, they appear to be much less capable of doing the same against existential threats. The Great Wall of China was built to protect the nation against the threats from the northern nomadic tribes, the Xiongnu state, Mongols and the Manchus. However, the wall failed repeatedly in protecting China against the invaders in times of action. In the case of the Berlin Wall, the main objective of the wall was to protect the east Berliners from their western counterparts. However, the fall of the wall in 1990 proved otherwise. The incapability of walls to provide effective security is also echoed by Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton on the debates over building the US-Mexico border wall that “walls will not protect us from threats.”

In line with the above narrative, another argument regarding the function of walls in today’s uncertain socio-economic climate is that in the mind of those who subscribe to them, walls represent structures that are synonymous with protection and self-preservation. To the believer, as embodiments of discipline, law and order, walls hold the promise of a better and greater future in the face of various ‘imagined threats,’ drawing from historical narratives of ‘logical’ thinking triumphing over the anarchy of nature. As straight lines that penetrate the chaotic wilderness of deserts, jungles, mountains and rivers, walls hold a historic representation of civilization – indicating order and safety to those who live within its confines. For those who are excluded from such structures, walls represent the imaginings of a better life – an imagining that cannot be substantiated save for the journey into its confines. This is evident in the behavior of people towards living in gated residential communities. The main purpose of the walls around these communities is not “to deter or prevent crime but to provide the perception of security and exclusivity” (McGoey, 2001). Walls turn these communities to “a private club where access privileges are required” (McGoey, 2001). The exclusivity created by these walls creates a tempting desire among those who feel less privileged by living outside these walls.

Ultimately, regardless of whether a wall protects a certain political interest (such as the case of the communist East Germany) or a community’s socio-economic interests (such as the case of gated residential communities), its construction necessitates the building of the same in the minds of its inhabitants, and it appears that in the minds of many of us who live in them today, the building of walls are contributing to a growing culture of separation than protection.