Walls – What Are They Good For?

Walls, barriers, border fences – Marcello Di Cintio had the good idea to write book (Walls: Travels Along the Barricades) describing his travels to several of them around the world.

Are these dividing lines a good thing or not?

To the conventional mind, of course they are evil! Diversity is good, separation is bad.

Note this assumption in Will Ferguson’s review of Walls:

the most divided, disputed regions on earth, where violent religious, cultural, political and economic divides are made of steel and concrete, in razor wire and desert berms … provide a testament to the psychological, social and environmental damage they create.

Wait a minute. Violent divides are never made of steel, concrete, razor wire, or desert berm. Violent divides are only ever made of rival groups, fighting. Damage is created by conflicts, not by walls.

In fact, walls generally lessen conflict. In the West Bank, the barrier has lowered attacks; it is the settlements that are the problem. The walls in Belfast helped to end the violence there. The division of Cyprus ended the fighting. Border fences too (India’s with Bangladesh for instance) are there for a reason.

Walls, barriers, border fences – often they have a useful purpose.



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6 responses to “Walls – What Are They Good For?

  1. Hello Dr. Hewson.

    I am pleased that my Walls book has caught the notice of a professor of your calibre.

    I must disagree, though, with the assertions you make in this post. During the course of the nearly 5 years I spent traveling to and writing about the walls, I can say with some confidence that the barriers do not lessen conflict. I explain all of this in far more detail in my book, of course, but please allow me to make a few brief points:

    The West Bank wall has not been a significant factor in the reduction of terror attacks from Palestinian militant groups, this according to ranking officials within the IDF and the Israeli Secret Service. Instead, the walls have succeeded in fanning the frustration that leads to violence in the first place.

    The walls in Belfast might make it a little more difficult to lob petrol bombs onto rooftops, but the walls make it impossible for Catholics and Protestants to have the sort of face-to-face existence necessary for real peace. And while the armed groups may have put down their guns – for the most part – there is no lack of violence along the interfaces.

    The barricades in Cyprus did not stop the fighting. The armed conflict fizzled out into a state of antagonistic inertia and hereditary fears. The wall has fossilized the idea, now false, that there is something to fear on the other side.

    As for India’s fence along the Bangladesh border, the barriers have done little to stop illegal migration, smuggling, or the infiltration of terror groups. Look no further than the Guwahati bombings in 2009 for evidence of the latter. What the fences have done, however, is impose a sense of difference and distrust between villagers who, until the fences rose, had everything in common.

    The walls are only useful in that they act as theatres where dramas of convenient fears are played out. If it is politically expedient to fear or hate the Other, a wall creates the convenient illusion of danger. The walls also create the illusion of power and strength. Concrete slabs and barbed wire looks impenetrable on television, perhaps, but I never found a wall that did not fail.


  2. I agree that along with the barriers generally there is no real peace; I just have doubts that real peace is possible in such situations. If, as I suspect, with walls there is less real fighting, then the glass is half full.
    (I should say that my comments were about the review rather than the book. I have yet to read it, but it’s on order right now!)

  3. I share your pessimism about real peace along the walls. Nowhere during my travels did I come across a wall about to fall. The only hope I derived from the research was on the level of individual souls – those who have, in one way or another, defeated the walls meant to keep them out.

    I hope you enjoy the book when it arrives. And if I ever end up in Regina, maybe we can continue the discussion. I’ve presented my material to several University classes and would be willing to do the same at U of R.

    Or perhaps we can just have coffee and a respectful argument.

  4. Pingback: Hard Partition, Soft Partition, and Barriers | Breviosity

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