The high stakes poker being played out in Washington, allegedly, centers on building a wall to keep out undesirable elements — terrorists, gang members, rapists ... like that. It has also opened a national debate on walls, fencing and border security, and renewed my interest in the subject.
We in Wyoming know a lot about fences and fencing. In fact, fences are so much a part of our culture that the Wyoming Humanities Council in conjunction with the Arts Council designed a series of programs around the subject in 2006. It also published an anthology of prose and poetry entitled Wyoming Fence Lines. The submissions, all by Wyoming writers, look at the creative and destructive power of fences, consider what we fence in and fence out, linger on the symbolism, and examine how fences both unite and divide us. It was edited by a former Wyoming poet laureate, David Romtvedt. I would recommend the book to anyone interested in the subject.
All of the elements Wyoming Fence Lines explores are at play in one way or another along the diverse terrain and within the social and economic environments that comprise the Mexican border. Actually, they are wildly magnified not by illegal immigration but by strident Washington rhetoric, a loose and dramatically inaccurate use of facts, the plight of government employees who are their victims and the rest of those who are collateral damage.
But what about the merits of the case? Would a border wall keep us in and the dread foreigner out, at least as efficiently as barbed wire keeps our neighbors’ cattle off our ranges? Certainly, it’s possible.
The East Germans proved it with the Berlin Wall, which wasn’t just one wall but two, separated by a killing ground, man traps, electronics, patrols and dogs, and surmounted by guard towers strategically spaced and manned to provide maximum-intensity crossfire. Very, very few made it alive from one side to the other. Those who wanted better survival odds, therefore, left Berlin for the countryside to attempt their flight over mere fences and cleared fields, or they smuggled themselves through it at crossing points.
One way or the other East German refugees continued to make their way to the west. That enormously expensive Berlin Wall — a wall through one city only — slowed the flood of refugees out of East Germany. It didn’t stop the motivated any more than Trump’s wall possibly could.
Mostly, thinking about walls and reviewing the literature on human relationships with walls, I find myself mentally scuffing dirt with a toe. I just can’t persuade myself that anyone in Washington really cares about a wall or about border security, for that matter. Witness to the former is the lack of any real planning for a wall that can march up the bed of the Rio Grande, climb mountain cliffs and divide ranches. Not to mention the above point, that the kind of wall required for the stated purpose would bankrupt both Washington and Mexico City.
As for the issue of national security? Who’s kidding who? If our decision-makers cared, the Border Patrol wouldn’t be part of the government shutdown.
Right now, our border guards are either working without pay or furloughed, have run or are running out of money to support their operations and can’t implement border programs. Right now, the Border Patrol doesn’t even have the money to maintain its web sites. Check it out: Here’s what you’ll see if you try to tap into any of its web pages:
Lapse in Federal Funding Impact on CBP Website Operations Notice
NOTICE: Due to the lapse in federal funding, this website will not be actively managed. ... we will not be able to respond to inquiries until after appropriations are enacted.
One thing all walls have in common is their symbolism. Call them walls or fences, they are there to say something. They tell us what piece of land belongs to who. They say: “Keep your cows off my grass.” They speak of nationalism and pride, of power and prestige and security. On a national level, historically, walls gave politicians a simple solution to complex problems and allowed them to escape dealing with the root problems.
And in this case? Whatever is built of Trump’s wall, I believe, will stand as a testament to the inability of our politicians to deal with the profound human tragedy behind this debate.