Last week some people in the world celebrated the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall twenty years ago. The timing of its fall was unexpected but the energy leading to its end had been building from its beginning. On August 12, 1961 the East German government signed the order to build the wall. The wall lasted for 28 years probably above average for walls. Rulers have been building walls since the beginning of empires. Today sentries, hidden cameras and steel gates help wall off gated communities and corporate or government buildings to keep out people like terrorists, activists, street people and low-class sales persons.
A few barriers like the Great Wall in China built over centuries are now landmarks for tourists. The Chinese government is not interested in the Great Wall for security purposes. Reports today indicate that President Obama may pay the customary presidential visit to the Great Wall or the forbidden city. Yesterday he delivered advice to the Chinese, bring down the internet firewall. Perhaps a visit to the Great Wall could jog his community organizer imagination so that when he returns he will order the transformation of the 700 mile long border wall now under construction between Mexico and the US, into a tourist attraction where visitor fees could help pay off the deficit. Technical support for modern wall construction at the US Mexico border was provided by Israeli corporations who have considerable experience building their own wall to keep Palestinians out.
The barrier under construction by Israel to wall off Palestine is more than half completed. It will eventually be 436 miles long. Built to stop angry Palestinians from entering Israel, the wall traverses Palestinian villages, farms and property and is a source of great Palestinian inconvenience.
In February of this year I was in Northern England where one can view what is left of Hadrian’s wall developed after 122 AD. Actually I didn’t stop to look at Hadrian’s Wall but instead looked over Antonine’s Wall built across the Central Belt of Scotland 20 years later and 100 miles to the north of Hadrian’s Wall. Construction of Antonine’s turf and wood barrier took 12 years. It had 12 major forts plus many additional outposts for the imperial Roman defence force. It proved impossible to staff and maintain, served little strategic value and like many other past and future weapons was abandoned after 20 years. A city park now surrounds the part of Antonine’s wall that I saw. Unless someone told me I would not have known I was viewing a one time security border designed to keep bad people or terrorists on one side and protect the wealth of empire on the other.
A wall runs through the city of Belfast, Northern Ireland today, the remnant of a waning British empire. It divides Protestants and Catholics and provides an excellent opportunity for graffiti artists, though some of the panels are alarmingly racist. According to some local people it still serves a security function although the unguarded gates may suggest that its usefulness for any past or future kingdom may be limited.
Chunks of the Berlin wall are sought after as souvenirs usually by people like me who see the end of walls to be a symbol of a better way. Selling off wire clumps of the U.S. border wall with Mexico could be a promising industry. But good as the sales of that wall might be, the enterprise will lack in the special market appeal of chunks of concrete wall direct from the Holy Land.
A question that will probably require mediation for both the U. S. and Israeli walls is who will get the profits from wall sales, the people who ordered the walling or the people who were walled out. I assume that President Obama’s staff will be looking for advice on these details this week as he visits the people who built the Great Wall of China, the biggest and most elaborate wall of all. I am confident President Obama remembers that in Chicago where he once organized, the mayor built walls to hide poor communities from world-class convention goers, royal families, presidents and empire builders.
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