Despite derisive comments by opponents concerning President Donald Trump’s proposed border wall — calling it a fourth-century solution — such structures have done their job well since they first appeared in Mesopotamia some 6,000 years ago. Today, supported by advanced technology, walls are still highly effective as protective structures.
The physical wall was integral to the establishment and maintenance of civilization. It protected city residents from outside threats ranging from wild animals to marauding armies of rival cities. As the great urban historian Lewis Mumford showed, walls defined the containers in which the work of civilization progressed in safety.
There is, of course, another, less optimistic function for walls. They enclose and separate. This aspect is reflected in Robert Frost’s poem “Mending Wall,” in which a farm wall is seen as an unnatural intrusion upon nature, which, over time seeks to destroy it. But the poet also realizes the importance of the structure, which keeps out hunters and other trespassers. So the poem is most famous for this wisdom: “Good fences make good neighbors.”
In his recent national address, Trump offered yet another perspective on walls and fences. The rich inevitably surround their properties with such structures to protect those within. Walls are ubiquitous.
Historical examples prove the worth and effectiveness of walls.
Ancient Mesopotamia: All cities were walled. Gilgamesh, the first superhero, defiantly built one for the city of Uruk.
Ancient Greece: The Delphic Oracle advised Athenians to trust in a wooden wall to defeat the invading Persians. Themistocles, founder of the Athenian navy, correctly convinced the people to trust in its wooden ships.
Rome: Hadrian’s wall protected Roman Britain from Picts and others for 300 years. The defense systems along the Danube River combined many elements in their scheme: physical walls, natural barriers, earthen mounds and manned forts.
Constantinople: Fourth century constructions by Constantine and Theodosius allowed the Eastern Empire to survive 1,000 years.
China: The Ming Dynasty portion of the Great Wall served admirably for almost 300 years, till 1644. After the Manchus conquered China, these victors set up their own barrier to keep Chinese immigrants out of Manchuria.
Gunpowder and siege cannons breached the defenses of Constantinople in 1453, heralding the end of protective masonry structures. But clever Italian engineers of the Renaissance developed the star fort configuration of extended bastions for cannons delaying the inevitable end of walled cities.
After the French Revolution, physical structures were replaced by virtual walls: standing armies, mass conscription, sea power and, in the 20th century, air power.
Still, our modern age witnessed two effective physical barriers: The Berlin Wall, a hated symbol of the last stage of the Cold War, and the Israeli wall separating it from Palestinian territories, a symbol of unfulfilled hopes for peace in the Middle East. Both achieved their aims of preventing unwanted ingress and egress.
Some say walls are immoral. Others say they are un-American. But according to our president, there have been 4,000 violent killings attributed to illegal aliens in the last two years. Well, last fall a few dozen people hospitalized after eating tainted romaine lettuce caused sensational headlines, national distress, huge increases in iceberg lettuce pricing from $1.89 to $4.99, and super-immediate action by our government. Well, how do we react to 4,000 violent deaths? It is morally imperative and incumbent on this nation to do all it can to prevent the next 4,000 deaths.
Let’s step back, calm down and take our example from the Romans’ Danube mixed elements defense systems. Let us take advantage of modern technology of drones, manned and electronically manned watch towers, motion detectors and other spyware, natural barriers and migrant traffic patterns to fashion physical and virtual walls that will protect our great land.
Walls work. Real ones. Virtual ones.
Democrats, Republicans: Break through the wall that divides you. We all want border security. We can have it. Appropriate the $5 billion and craft a state-of-the-art system.
Silvio Laccetti is a columnist and a retired professor of history from Stevens Tech in Hoboken, New Jersey. This column was distributed by Tribune New Service.