Yes, walls are needed

Border walls are all the rage worldwide because they work.

Dr. Michel Gurfinkiel

OpEds Gaza border fence
Gaza border fence

One may support or oppose the Trump administration’s « grand design » in terms of home security : the building, or the « updating »,  of a 3200 kilometers « wall » or « fence» between the United States and Mexico. One cannot deny, however, that such structures - hermetic and heavily monitored separations, instead of merely classic borders - are quite common today. While the Iron Curtain and Bamboo Curtain separating the USSR and Red China from the rest of the world were partially dismantled, some other 20th century barriers are still extant ; and new ones are now being erected all over the world at steady pace.

Le Point, a French Right of Centre weekly magazine, published a few months ago a  comprehensive map in this respect ( According to it, and other documents, the oldest existing barriers are the outcome of wars of agression : the « demilitarized zone » (DMZ) between North and South Korea - in fact, one of the most militarized fences in the world -, was created in 1953 as part of the armistice agreement that ended a three years war initiated by the Communist North Korean regime ; the 180 kilometers long Attila that severs the Muslim Turkish populated Northern Cyprus from the Christian Southern Greek populated Republic of Cyprus was unilaterally set up by Turkey after it invaded  the Mediterranean island in 1975 ; and the Sand Wall, a 2720 kilometers barrier put in place  between 1980 and 1987 and manned by 100 000 Moroccan soldiers, perennizes the unilateral annexation by Morocco, in 1975, of  the former Spanish colony of Western Sahara.

Likewise, the present 120 kilometers fences on the Israeli-Syrian and Israeli-Lebanese borders and the 51 kilometers fence on the Israeli-Gazan line were set up in the wake of repeated agressions by Arab States or militant organizations against the Jewish State from 1948 to 2014 ; and the almost 3000 kilometers fence on the Indian-Pakistani border is the result of the many wars and skirmishes involving the two South Asian nations since 1947.

However, the more recent barriers were built or are being built within a very different context. Their main purpose is to prevent large scale terrorist infiltrations or to monitor mass migrations.

In fact, the whole discussion about border barriers pales once proper attention is given to the surge of walls, fences, gates and security checks of any kind within our own borders.
The largest of them are to be found in the Islamic world, which should not come as a surprise, since many Islamic countries are hotbeds of competing jihadist movements or migratory pools or both. There is a 3300 kilometer-long wall between secular but Hindu-dominated India and Muslim Bangladesh, , 2700 kilometers of walls around Uzbekistan, 1400 kilometers on Saudi Arabia’s borders, 1200 kilometers on Iran’s Eastern borders, 700 kilometers on Oman’s borders. Jordan is completing a 500 kilometer fence on its Syrian and Iraqi borders, Tunisia a 200 kilometer one along its Lybian border. Israel, a Jewish islet in the Muslim ocean, operates some 550 kilometers of barriers in the 'West Bank' and on its Jordanian and Egyptian borders in addition to its aforementioned military fences. Much smaller walls are to be found as well in the same area : Egypt built a minuscule 11 kilometers on its Gaza border ; and a combined 11,81 kilometers fence separates the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla from Morocco.

More barriers dot other parts of the world. China built a 1600 kilometer fence along the China/North Korea border. In Southern Africa, a 500 kilometer fence separates Botswana from Zimbabwe. In Central America, a seashore fence cuts Guatemala from Mexico. Many barriers have ben recently implemented in Europe, essentially in order to curb mass immigration from Muslim countries, on the borders of Greece, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Hungary, Slovenia, and even Norway. A 3 kilometer fence has been built at Calais, Northern France, around the French terminal of Eurostar, the French-British underwater highspeed train tunnel.

Enlightened citizens in Western democracies feel usually uncomfortable about wall building, especially when their own countries are concerned. Individual freedom and individual achievement are the Western world’s most cherished values : it is all the more difficult to admit that they have a dark side, that more freedom to pursuit happiness may entail more freedom for evil people to follow their evil ways, and that mass immigration without acculturation may bring about about societal disruption, with equally bad consequences for the autochtonous population and the newcomers. Evidence about the dark side is becoming overwhelming, however. There is accordingly a growing feeling that barriers may actually be needed, at least as a transitory option, and that, as such, they are fully legitimate.

In fact, the whole discussion about border barriers pales once proper attention is given to the surge of walls, fences, gates and security checks of any kind within our own borders.

Some of us may remember a time when there were no security checks on domestic flights, and when security checks on international flights amounted to no more that passport or customs control. Today, it is properly unthinkable to not to be checked, and screened, and profiled, even for a short domestic shuttle between two neighboring cities. The reason for such a transformation is not a declining interest into individual freedom but a rising concern about individual and collective safety due to increasing numbers of airline hijackings, bombings and suicide attacks. More often than not, the same is true about other forms of public transportation. All manners of checks are now routinely operated on rapid trains in Europe, like TGV in France. Passengers and luggage are checked on all train and long distance buses in Israel. Random inspection is commonplace even on regular bus and underground lines in Europe and Israel.

Similar considerations prevail about access to public buildings and even to public spaces. Electronic access control or bag checking is ubiquitous at museums, department stores, government or business facilities in most developped nations. Many public facilities are surrounded by permanent metallic barriers or concrete cones : this has been the case for years of American embassies or Jewish facilities, including synagogues ; in the wake of terrorist trucks and cars attacks against pedestrians – like the massacre in Nice on July 14, 2016, more barriers and concrete cones are being installed in touristic areas. Street or highway monitoring cameras keep a record of pedestrians and cars alike.

State of siege measures are now a quite frequent occurence. After the terrorist attacks in Barcelona,  last summer, many monuments or streets or public spaces, including coffee shops or restaurants,  were momentarily closed in many other European cities. In Paris, where I live, it was forbidden to drive or even walk in front of or around the Notre-Dame Cathedral. Armed personnel of all kinds and of both genders were patrolling (the ordinary police, the CRS or anti-riots police, the Gendarmerie nationale or national constabulary, and the regular army), all of them heavily equipped with bulletproof jackets, guns and even machine-guns. In those places where traffic was allowed, security personnel randomly stopped private cars and trucks for inspection.

And what about private housing ? Until recently, walls and gates were not a common feature in well to do American suburbs. Things may be changing in this respect, with the rise of gated communities projects. Likewise, the gates of most residential buildings used to be unlocked or even open during daytime in post WW2 Paris.  Parisians had no qualms then leaving their appartment keys under the doormat. From the 1970’s on, new dispensations were introduced : digicodes or digital locks became ubiquitous. Paying a visit to friends or relatives in 21st century Paris frequently entails passing through one or several digitally operated gates.

It stands to reason that border barriers and home security are but two faces of a same coin. The true question, in my opinion, is how much barriers at borders help to allievate the burden of security within borders. In my opinion, very much. European nations, and France in particular after the jihadist killing spree of 2015-2016, are learning a lot from Israel, where comparatively high levels of home security have been achieved without infringing on personal liberties or even creating a pervading climate of fear and suspicion. One important reason for this Israeli success is the implementation of comprehensive networks of border barriers.

Michel Gurfinkiel, a French public intellectual and the editor at large of Valeurs Actuelles, is the Founder and President of the Jean-Jacques Rousseau Institute and a Shillman/Ginsburg Fellow at Middle East Forum.

Crossposted from JP Media.