Gazette subscriber Mike Whitaker recently made a special request.
“The border wall is a very controversial subject today,” he wrote. “Mr. Shatz always offers an interesting perspective and insight from a historical perspective. It would be good to know his thoughts.”
This is a subject I have thought about for some time. After all, six decades ago I escaped from Communist Czechoslovakia by breaching the Iron Curtain. While that wasn’t a wall, it consisted of deadly border barriers with the West.
Fascination with walls goes back to the Great Wall of China, the series of fortifications, made mostly of stone, built along the historical northern borders of China to protect the empire against raids and invasions by nomadic tribes from the Eurasian Steppe.
Today, the Great Wall of China is a tourist attraction.
In August 1961, the German Democratic Republic — East Germany — started to build The Berlin Wall, a concrete barrier that included guard towers, accompanied by a wide area, called the “death strip,” anti-vehicle trenches, and “fakir beds” (beds of nails.)
The Eastern Block portrayed the wall as a means to protect its population from fascist elements from the West.
Before it was built, 3.5 million East Germans defected to West Germany. But between 1961 and 1989, the wall prevented almost all such defections. More than 100,000 people attempted to escape over the wall, but only about 5,000 succeeded. More than 200 were killed in the “death strip.”
President Trump often uses the wall separating Israel and the Palestinians living in the West Bank as an example of the effectiveness of a wall. But the Israeli West Bank barrier consists — about 95 percent — of a multi-layered fence system, infused with intrusion detection equipment. Israel considers it a security barrier against terrorism, while the Palestinians call it a racial segregation wall.
The barrier works. It prevents incursion by terrorists because the Israeli border guards are authorized to shoot to kill.
The Mexico-United States barrier is aimed to prevent illegals crossings from Mexico into the United States. There is already a “virtual fence” between the two countries. Sensors, cameras and other surveillance equipment are used to dispatch U.S. border patrol agents to suspected crossings.
But on June 16, 2015, when Trump officially announced his candidacy for the presidency of the United States, he proclaimed, “I will built a great wall — and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me — and I’ll build them very inexpensively. I will build a great wall on our southern border, and I will make Mexico pay for that wall. Mark my words.”
As a presidential candidate, Trump repeatedly used the same words to activate his base at campaign rallies.
Shortly after he was elected president, one of Trump’s top advisers, Rudy Giuliani, stated that Trump didn’t need the support of Congress to build his promised wall. He said it could be accomplished through an executive order. In fact, a large portion of the wall/barrier — already approved by Congress — has been built.
It is obvious the wall has become a metaphor and a political football between Republicans and Democrats. By all indication, leaders of both parties are committed to improving border security on all fronts and at all entry points to our country. Thus, what we need is a return to American pragmatism in the field of politics, the economy and even social life.
If history is any guide, it will happen.
Shatz is a Williamsburg resident. He is the author of “Reports from a Distant Place,” the compilation of his selected columns. The book is available at the Bruton Parish Shop and Amazon.com.