Lange: Walls And Borders

Nov 9, 2017

For those old enough to remember, the fall of 1989 was an exhilarating time. One had to have a heart of stone to not be moved by the chants of “We are the people”. So many East Germans had mustered the courage to challenge their repressive regime that it finally collapsed, and they did it peacefully.

Once people could freely cross the Berlin Wall, the border that had separated the two German states became obsolete, too. The strip of land that had been filled with deadly barriers was declared a nature preserve, known as the Green Belt. Hundreds of rare plant and animal species found refuge there during the 40 years it had been closed to humans.

I too have been spending a lot of time there lately, contemplating this human invention of borders. In the initial euphoria of ‘89, combined with the increasing pace of globalization, it seemed at first that borders might become a thing of the past. But then, the overall trend reversed, and the number of border fences and walls has quadrupled - mostly in North Africa, the Middle East, and Europe.

And then there’s the wall between the US and Mexico – stretches of which already exist plus proposed additions. It’s different in many ways from the obsolete one I was tracing in Germany. The one with Mexico is supposed to keep people out, while the purpose of the one that divided Germany was to keep people in. The German border turned out to have a silver lining in that it increased biodiversity by providing a refuge in a heavily developed landscape. A greater stretch of wall along the Mexican border would likely doom the survival of wide-ranging species like the jaguar.

One thing all border walls have in common, though, is that they alone don’t stop people from crossing. Again and again on my journey along Germany’s former border, I came upon markers in memory of people who had died as they attempted to cross - either from mines or from shots fired by border guards.

At the US/Mexico border, several thousand people have already died from heat or thirst on their quest north, simply by taking more remote routes to avoid increased security.

Something to contemplate in the ongoing debate about the wall is whether or not we’d be willing to further increase the death toll by defending this border with weapons.