Some of our most dramatic quotations come from walls. Who could ever forget, "Mr. Gorbechav, tear down this wall!" Or, "You can see the Great Wall of China from the moon." (Which turned out to be false.) Or Robert Frost's "Something there is that doesn't love a wall."
I was rereading Frost's poem, "Mending Wall," the other day. Between the ruckus over the immigration bill and the Dept. of Homeland Security's determination to begin building a 135-mile wall in Texas' Rio Grande Valley, walls are in the news.
Conservatives are furious that we have something like 11 million illegal aliens in the United States today. "Keep 'em out, wall 'em out!" is their rallying cry.
Liberals accept their presence, worry over their children's health care, and want to rebuild, say, the economy of Mexico so America no longer looks like a promised land.
In Frost's poem, he makes the conflict personal. Ostensibly, he's describing a New England ritual, the stone fence repair he and his conservative neighbor carried out every Spring.
The "something" that does not love a wall - Frost impishly suggests "elves" - causes frost heaves to spill boulders. It attracts hunters who tear apart sections looking for a rabbit in a burrow.
Why have the wall at all, Frost asks. He's raising apples. His neighbor is growing pines. "My apple trees will never get across and eat his pine cones," he chides. His neighbor just huffs, "Good fences make good neighbors."
Frost wonders, "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 offense." It's a fair question.
When the Chinese built the Great Wall, it was an attempt to keep out marauding Mongols. Sometimes it worked. Sometimes it didn't.
The Maginot Line was an attempt to stop the Germans from attacking France. Instead, the Germans went around it.
The Berlin Wall was an affront, designed to keep a captive people inside the Iron Curtain. The world rejoiced when it was torn down.
The Isreali-Palestinian Wall, besides meandering here and there to steal a little more Palestinian land, bristles with barbed wire, cameras, electricity, sensors, watchtowers and sniper posts. By building it, Israel is giving the world a lesson in cold brutality.
In the latest issue of The Nation, Naomi Klein spotlights another aspect of that particular wall: it is helping the Israeli economy. The creative intelligence of the country has been poured into "selling fences to an apartheid planet... Many of the country's young entrepreneurs are using Israel's status as a fortressed state, and its occupation of Gaza and the West bank, as a kind of twenty-four-hour showroom."
Who would have dreamed, when we optimistically faced the millennium, that the world would bend towards enriching itself with barbed wire, electricity, sensors, watchtowers and sniper posts?
At the Mexican-American border, Homeland Security is on a mission.
"We have a mandate from Congress and the public to secure our borders, and we are going to be steadfast in fulfilling that mandate," said spokesman Russ Knocke on NPR's "All Things Considered" a few days ago.
I question that "mandate." In 2006, just before the mid-term election, the Republicans, borrowing an ugly page from the Israeli playbook, passed the Secure Fence Act. It authorized the Dept. of Homeland Security to build 700 miles of fence on the U.S.-Mexico border. The estimated cost was $2.2 billion. The president signed it happily.
The bill was intended to be a "wedge" issue, one that would bring the Republicans more votes. The tactic didn't work. Now we're stuck with the bill - and if we don't loudly protest, the wall.
Arrayed against this wall are farmers and ranchers on both sides of the border, environmentalists who warn that entire ecosystems will be disrupted or destroyed, mayors of border towns on both sides of the river, and the Mexican government. Walls are useless things. Most illegal immigrants don't come here with wet backs; they overstay their student or travel visas. Cuban refugees, blocked from entering the U.S. in Florida, go to Mexico to cross the California border.
Every time a southern crossing is made more difficult, dedicated immigrants take more dangerous paths. They don't stop coming. False papers, tunnels, coyote smugglers - human ingenuity, like human veniality, is extraordinary creative. Remember Prohibition?
During the years since 9/11, the federal government has obsessively focused attention and money on border control. The Canadian-American border is a mess. The American passport system failed this summer. So if illegal aliens are still flooding in, either our government is incompetent or it has an impossible job. Either way, how will a fence help?
Latin Americans are workers, not apple trees out to eat our pine cones - or our lunch.
Who are we walling in, Frost asks? Who are we walling out?
Clearly, it's ourselves we're walling in. We're creating our own jail. We're walling out fresh people, fresh ideas and fresh labor. We're walling out the world.
If we let the conservatives win this fight, we turn America into one large gated community. And no matter how we feel about illegal immigrants, we will all be deeply injured by the results.
Frost's neighbor, clutching his stones, is "like an old-stone savage armed/He moves in darkness as it seems to me/Not of woods only and the shades of trees."
Walls create darkness. Eventually, they collapse. Historically, when have they ever make good neighbors? They must not be built. Joyce Marcel is a journalist and columnist based in Vermont. A collection of her columns, "A Thousand Words or Less," is available through joycemarcel.com. And write her at email@example.com.