Fortress America: How Walling Ourselves Off Can Kill

Human Rights

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.

Thus, though walls are rendered as closed barriers, these seemingly sophisticated structures are not truly impermeable. Though the U.S.-Mexico border is increasingly hardened, it is also the most crossed border in the world. Every year nearly 350 million people cross the border legally, with another 500,000 crossing illegally. (Keep in mind that the numbers of those crossing illegally have been steadily on the decline since 2009.)

Though gated communities are supposed to be more secure and safe than the suburbs from which they’re walled off, research has shown that gated communities do not have less crime.

It’s rather interesting, then, that these kinds of walls continue to be built despite the fact that they do not accomplish their intended goals. If anything, the walls have turned out to be as much about propaganda—promising a whole slew of things that never turn out—than anything else. If fact, that’s really all they’re good for.

But the permeability of walls is absolutely fundamental in creating a narrative about who has the right to life. Here’s what I mean:

The deaths of those who “don’t belong” (aka undocumented migrants, or, in many cases young black males like Trayvon Martin) are both a physical death and a social death. Such deaths are caused by three complicated factors:

  1. Walls inspire and create an external enemy by cultivating a strong mindset of “us v. them.”
  2. When the enemy has intruded and died as a result of that intrusion, their deaths are understood as legitimate to those who live inside the wall. In other words, their deaths are socially OK because they didn’t belong anyway.
  3. Because it’s OK that these people have died, those living inside the walls do nothing to address the fact that it is the impermeability of these walls, and the walls themselves, that ultimately lead to death.

It is no coincidence that the people who are dying inside and outside of these walls are people of color. Race has everything to do with this analysis. Therefore, we must wonder if the racialized faces and names of the migrant dead, as well as dead young black men like Trayvon Martin, are a message that race plays a role in the distribution of death.

For though all human beings must die, the death of the unwanted, the death of “illegal” immigrants and “criminal” young black men, secures the livelihood and privilege of a particular kind of population (a population that, in light of these examples, tends to be a whiter population).

And though the U.S. and gated communities alike are becoming increasingly diverse (Trayvon Martin’s gated community is 49 percent non-Hispanic white, 23 percent Hispanic, 20 percent African American, and 5 percent Asian) deaths like Martin’s nonetheless protect the institutionalized image of who safety and a sense of belonging is made for. (In other words, not for black men like Martin or Hispanic immigrants.)

As one blogger said of Martin's killing: “This story is partly about what happens to a gated development when residents find themselves on the same side of the gate as people they fear.”

The image of a secure border, or a secure gated community, therefore, absolutely depends on the dividing quality of racism, for race is what divides the “good life” (the white population) and the “bad life” (anything but white). And race, in this national and global walling phenomenon where those inside the walls have let the unwanted die, is the precondition that makes the killing of the “bad life” acceptable.

Put more simply, the walls of gated communities, borders and even those within cities, introduce a break in the domain of life, outlining who must live and who must die. That is to say that walls produce death: walls kill.

Americans should think about the role gated communities and borders play in the gradual demise of our democracy. As Edward Blakely, the author of Fortress America: Gated Communities in the United States, argued in a Washington Postarticle:

“[Gated] communities can become dangerous for the people inside and outside them — and dangerous for the nation’s ideal of equality among its people.” 

But the mindset of a divided equality is alive and well for those walled in. As Rich Benjamin put it in a New York Timesop-ed on the death of Trayvon Martin:

“Mr. Zimmerman reacted [by] taking out his handgun and shooting the youth in cold blood. What gives? Welcome to gate-minded America.”

I would like to add, “and the world.”

Andromeda Hill, one of Israel’s more well-known gated communities in Tel Aviv, articulates this mindset perfectly. Not only is the development advertised as a “city within a city” on its website, but its marketing slogan reads, “The Andromeda Hill project: To Buy or Not to Be.” This phrasing encapsulates the underlying logic that if a person does not belong to this gated community (by purchasing into it, hence being wealthy, and more likely than not being white) then he not only does not belong, he does not even exist.

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