If you stop and think about it, there are many great songs about walls. These endless ballads and lyrics describe the physical act of constructing, mending and, most often, breaking them. Artists, regardless of their medium, have always valued the power of ‘walls’. It is no wonder when we consider how these innate objects hold the potential to expose the greatest vulnerabilities of humanity. Pretentious waddle, I heard someone say? I don’t think so. By reducing them to an essentially ‘bricks and mortar’ scenario, we have come to underestimate their capacity. In the last century, they have been connected to bloodshed, broken communities and poverty. The modern necessity of ‘state’ creation has reconstituted our perception of walls; they are now politicised entities representing authority (both fervently patriotic and nationalistically ruthless). A far cry from their humble shelter-providing origins, ‘walls’ symbolically unravel the fragility of our world.
The birth of the modern world, as we know it, began with the notion of nationalism. In an approach to develop independence, nations were constructed and lands divided. They provided comfort and security in a brave new world and their borders; lines on newly devised maps, defined them. Now, these lines are entrenched in our dialogue and debates; we speak as if they were an unquestionable constant. Of course, there is nothing revolutionary about securing territories. It is a common event when we flick through the histories of various civilisations. Yet the ‘nation state’ remains quintessentially modern.
In the last century, when lines became insufficient, we began building ‘walls’. The Berlin Wall represented an ideological dispute across our continent. Erected in August 1961, it was a menacing division within Germany’s capital. The concrete and metal grill covered fence ran the total length of 155 kilometres and towered almost four metres above the ground. It was matched with significant manpower to prevent any would-be climbers; its three hundred watchtowers manned by seven units who routinely patrolled the board with guard dogs.
Sadly, we never shed our terrible past. Even since the collapse of the Berlin Wall, walls have persisted as a useful devise to bring order to ‘troubled’ zones. In Israel, a theological jumble, we saw the propping up of the Gaza Strip Wall. Two years later, Yitzhak Rabin, remarked, “we [Israel] have to decide on separation as a philosophy. There has to be a clear border.” The Israelis were not alone. On August 29th, 2008 the U.S. Department of Homeland Security decided to construct 190 miles (310 km) of pedestrian border fence and 154.3 miles (248.3 km) of vehicle border fence across its Mexican border.
Another century, another continent and another wall: ‘Fortress India’ now imposes another terrifying border control policy. Controlling territory from potential terrorist threats has become an imperative for this growing nation-state and, in turn, it has sought to tighten control of its Bangladeshi border. According to Odhikar, the Bangladeshi-based human-rights organization, the Border Service Forces have killed over twenty Bangladeshis and wounded over fifty so far this year. More shockingly, Human Rights Watch have confirmed that over the last decade, a total of 930 Bangladeshis have been killed.
I can hear the famous words of poet laureate, C. K. Williams who wrote:
“…we raised ever more walls, even walls
that might fail: Jericho shucked from its ramparts
men, women, old, young, all slaughtered
What did it matter? We believed still in our wall.”
Echoing C. K. Williams, I wonder: why do we still believe in our walls? Perhaps, it is the great curse of seeing nationalism flourish. Indeed, as we have seen, for a nation state to succeed it must provide stability. At its most basic, a state must reassure its citizens of land, resources and opportunities. Unfortunately, these rarely come in abundance and the fear of inadequacy requires the state to reassert itself; manifested through aggressive rhetoric, politics or armed retaliation. Walls are potent by providing the ammunition for these three to ingredients to fester; yet, walls also expose the nation-states unspoken fragility. Collectively, we tremble and submit to political insecurities. This is a great tragedy because, whether metaphorical or literal, walls will never resolve our conflicts and those who believe in striving for change must now speak up to abate this great fragility.
Luckily, this has already begun in regions like Israel with the support of organisations such as ‘JustVision’, which looks to “increase the power and legitimacy of Palestinians and Israelis working for non-violent solutions to the conflict”.
Art perceptively understood the power of walls and their strain on humanity. It has at least allowed me to start unearthing the fragility of the nation-state. The key lessons we should draw from the past (if at all possible) is to continue to question our defences, our status quo, and never fear proposing ideas that challenge our political pretensions. Always remembering the words of Frost’s ‘Mending Walls’:
“Before I built a wall, I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out
And to whom I was like to give offence”
Photo Credits: Muhammed Muheisen/Associated Press
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