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Fortress America: How Walling Ourselves Off Can Kill

Trayvon Martin died inside a gated community; thousands of migrants have died crossing the U.S.-Mexico border fence. Is there a correlation between these deaths inside walls?

It seems ironic that 23 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and 21 years after the dismantling of South Africa’s white-enclave apartheid fences, walls have become  a political staple for a growing number of nation-states. Walls have popped up just about everywhere, erected along national borders, within national boundaries, encircling both democratic and authoritarian states. South Africa is now home to an increasing  number of gated communities, even since the end of apartheid rule. It seems like the world is humming the old adage “Good fences make good neighbors.”

But it’s time we ask ourselves, as Robert Frost did in his poem “Mending Wall,” if fences really do make good neighbors—especially in light of the lethal shooting of Trayvon Martin inside a gated community, and the ongoing proposals to beef up the death-zone of the U.S.-Mexico border.

The U.S.-Mexico border—a patchwork of steel and concrete fences, infrared cameras, sensors, drones and nearly 20,000 border patrol agents—has  divertedmore than 5,000 migrants through lethal terrain and ultimately to their deaths (15 times the number of people who died attempting to cross the Berlin Wall).

In 2011, Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain enthusiastically proposed building an even larger border fence that would kill all trespassers as his solution for illegal immigration. Revealing his gaga-eyes for border walls, Cain said:

"I just got back from China. Ever heard of the Great Wall of China? It looks pretty sturdy. And that sucker is real high. I think we can build one if we want to! We have to put a man on the moon, we can build a fence! Now, my fence might be part Great Wall and part electrical technology...It will be a 20-foot wall, barbed wire, electrified on the top, and on this side of the fence, I'll have that moat that President Obama talked about. And I would put those alligators in that moat!"

But Cain isn't the only one who agrees walls should be political staples for nation-states, for the walling list goes on:

Israel’s “security” wall with the West Bank, as well as its barriers between Egypt and Lebanon, have also been sites for migrant and civilian casualties.

Saudi Arabia recently built a wall along its border with Yemen. India has walled off Pakistan, Bangladesh and Burma. Thailand and Malaysia have cooperated to build a steel wall between each other. Egypt has built an underground wall along its border with Gaza, a wall that Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal has called the “wall of death.”

Spain has built enclosed barriers inside Morocco to seal off the Spanish territories of Melilla and Ceuta. In the past 10 years alone, nearly 8,000 African migrants have died attempting to reach and/or cross over the Melilla and Ceuta fences with the hope of beginning a potentially better life in the European Union.

And we can’t forget the walls within walls. Gated communities, like the one where Trayvon Martin was stalked and brutally killed, have sprung up across the globe. Beginning in the 1980s, Americans began forting up as an attempt to secure the value of their homes, escape crime and poverty and live among others who share a sense of the "good life.” Today, according to 2009 Census Bureau data, more than 10 million housing units in the U.S. are in gated communities.

But what is most compelling about these walls is their gated quality; for though these walls are built to represent impermeability, they are punctured by official (and unofficial) openings through which people can cross from one side to the other. We see this with the mere fact that the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border is only lined with walling for a dispersed 700 miles. We see this in gated communities where car access is restricted, but anyone can enter by foot.