Why Trump's Wall, Like All Other Walls, Would Fail

The Berlin Wall is back, at least for the duration of the presidential campaign. That was inevitable, I suppose, given Donald Trump's long and campaign-boosting promise to build a new wall along the entire U.S.-Mexico border. While Trump likely will never occupy the White House, his angry supporters' demand for a wall will no doubt remain, perhaps even grow.


This has caused some liberals to point to the evil of the Berlin barrier (1961-1989). Some conservatives, on the other hand, point to the Berlin Wall as, at minimum, a security success. One leading Fox News analyst, after visiting remnants of the wall not long ago, tweeted, approvingly, "Walls work."

And to think that when Leonard Cohen sang in "The Future" in 1992, "give me back the Berlin Wall" (in a way, anticipating Trump), it was in the guise of an obviously evil narrator also calling for the return of Stalin and another Hiroshima.

There are, however, plenty of differences between the Berlin Wall and the current, and any future, border barrier with Mexico. To state the most obvious: The Berlin wall was built by a government attempting to keep its people in, while the Trump wall would be constructed by another country to keep people out. Yet they also have much in common: the paranoia and brutal intent of the builders; the blow to that nation's reputation around the globe; the economic consequences on both sides of the barrier; and the certainty of repeated attempts to circumvent the obstacle, leading to arrests and fatal shootings.

Already, along stretches of the U.S.-Mexico border where 651 miles of a seemingly impenetrable high fence or wall already rises, there is one more similarity: tunnels are being dug below, to skirt security. In Berlin, dozens of tunnels were built in the 1960s by those already in the west, in an attempt to bring to freedom their friends, lovers, and family members in the communist east. Along our border today most of the digging starts in Mexico and sometimes the aim is not so much escape as smuggling. No matter, the landscape is much the same: a brutal and elaborate security system monitors escapes, featuring guard towers, barbed wire, electronic sensors, snipers, so reminiscent of the "death strips" along the wall in Berlin.

Nevertheless, to cite just one example: A 481-foot tunnel under the current "wall," used to smuggle drugs, was discovered not long ago. This equaled the longest 1960s tunnel in Berlin.

Donald Trump has lately offered something rare for him: an explicit plan, to combat the tunnel builders. “We will use the best technology," he vowed, "including above- and below-ground sensors.... Above- and below- ground sensors, towers, aerial surveillance and manpower to supplement the wall, find and dislocate tunnels and keep out criminal cartels." Trump had earlier told CNN that any escapes would be thwarted by "tunnel technology."

A reporter for a major U.S. newspaper this past August counted 200 tunnels excavated at our southern border so far, before pointing out, contra Trump, that no technology exists to reliably detect the tunnels, with experts claiming it might be years before such a system is developed.

There are many good reasons to defeat Trump, but one important one is preventing any attempt to build a new wall or expand the current wall. Surely under Trump a reinforced barrier will more likely provoke dangerous incidents and cost lives. The Berlin Wall, I've learned after lengthy exposure to its history in researching my book The Tunnels, not only produced almost endless suffering for average citizens and entire communities, but brought worldwide shame to the East German government and its Soviet backers. It also produced mental breakdowns among guards ordered to carry out their duties, including shooting to kill.

And perhaps even more critical: Border walls rarely, if ever, solve or even alleviate (and may exacerbate) the problems that provoked their construction, from Berlin to the West Bank.

Make no mistake: as the Berlin experience tells us, tunnels for refugees or smugglers will be built, despite the Trump "sensors" and "technology" and "towers." And as Leonard Cohen observed in that same song, "I've seen the future, brother, and it is murder."

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