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Barbarians at the Wall

ISSUE:  Spring 2007

The Great Wall: China Against the World, 1000 BC–AD 2000, by Julia Lovell. Grove, March 2006. $25 cloth, $15 paper

The West Bank Wall: Unmaking Palestine, by Ray Dolphin. Pluto Press, March 2006. $22.95 paper

Fugitive Landscapes: The Forgotten History of the U.S.–Mexico Borderlands, by Samuel Truett. Yale, December 2006. $40

The divide between the US and Mexico, like that of any political border, is a construct. It is an abstraction made visible in the dashes on a map. It’s palpable when stuck in one of the border’s epic traffic jams, either as a ripple in the stream of cars funneling into San Diego, or as part of a caravan slouching to Ensenada. For most Mexicans and Americans living along the border, this divide is an innocuous obstacle: sometimes accommodating, sometimes a barrier, but hardly a looming danger, unless you must cross its badlands under the frozen cover of starlight or under the searing lashes of the sun. It is what it is: The line between you and a weekend spent in Baja or a day of shopping in Mission Valley. Sometimes it’s the line between you and survival.

Another view holds that the divide is a sieve failing to do just that—to separate. It is a view colored by an infamous day in September: The US now faces existential threats from al Qaeda terrorists and their deranged peers. Too many people are arriving, slipping into California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. They are unaccounted for. They have no papers. They are “illegal.” One of them, armed with a vial of smallpox or carrying a nuclear-bomb briefcase, could, in theory, wipe us out—“them” being what the Border Patrol calls OTMs, “Other Than Mexicans.” (The acronym not only implies the rarity of nationals from other than Mexico and Central America crossing illegally into the US, but how every person living between Tijuana and Tierra del Fuego is, to some Americans, a “Mexican.”) This flimsy divide, wide-open where asphalt gives way to scorched desert, is the stuff of nightmares. These are the years of living dangerously, no matter where the cul-de-sac or city block you call home is.

Last October, President George W. Bush signed the Secure Fence Act of 2006, allowing for 700 miles of double-layer fencing to be added to the 75 miles of fence already standing on the US–Mexico border. At a cost of about $7 billion, as estimated by the Department of Homeland Security, this wall of sorts would cost about $1 billion less than the monthly bill for Iraq. “It’s what the people in this country want,” the president said. “They want to know that we are modernizing the border so we can better secure the border.” Placing a high-tech security fence, though, first on the nearly 2,000-mile-long Mexico border, instead of the 4,000-mile-long border shared by the US and Canada, was a curious decision. After all, in 1999 an Algerian man drove from Canada into Washington State, where he was arrested in possession of a car packed with explosives, plotting to blow up part of Los Angeles International Airport. No such major arrests have been made on the US–Mexico border. And given that this wall of fencing is supposed to protect the US from belligerents abroad, it’s also curious the president, when signing the bill, would talk about how this project alone wouldn’t address the seemingly unrelated matter of undocumented immigrants working and living in the US. “We need comprehensive reform,” he said, “that provides a legal way for people to work here on a temporary basis.” But most odd of all, given the imminent danger of annihilation: the bill did not provide for the billions the fence would cost.

Maybe the bill was a cynical act of political theater, the same as that of two years ago when there was a bellowing for a constitutional amendment to prohibit gay marriage—a roar diminished to a grumble after President Bush won reelection. The timing would suggest as much. The security act was signed just before the November elections, with the president looking to give his beleaguered party a boost. Desperate to remain in control of Congress, many Republican candidates were running on platforms calling for, among other things, the criminalization of undocumented workers and otherwise making the most of what might be the country’s greatest fear and certainly its greatest irony: a nation of immigrants suspicious of—if not outright hostile to—newer immigrants. But maybe there is something else at work.

In the New York Times Magazine last October, Joseph Lelyveld went to Arizona to talk to various candidates about their anti-immigration campaigns, looking to gauge the strength of their appeal. Ultimately, as the November elections would show, their message—that the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living here were draining resources without contributing anything—wasn’t popular enough to win the GOP as many seats on the Hill as it would have liked. But Lelyveld picked out among the familiar xenophobic rhetoric a new strain of anti-immigrant sentiment—though it might be more accurate to say that an always-present strain has gained recent potency. “An ‘honest debate’ is needed about ‘changing demographics,’” a congressional candidate tells Lelyveld, who then explains that for this man “[t]he mass border crossings are not just illegal; in their scale, they suggest that the cultural identity of his adopted state could change.” The candidate, who would go on to lose his election, then talks about Los Angeles. “A half million immigrants demonstrated there last spring,” he tells Lelyveld. “The mayor, a Latino himself, supported them. [The candidate] saw that as a warning for Arizona.”

This suggests something interesting, though perhaps “interesting” in the same way mutating cancer cells are interesting to an oncologist (but alarming to a patient). By signing the Secure Fence Act, the president was evidently echoing, if faintly, the concerns of some of his partisans: there is a connection between the survival of a country’s political and cultural institutions and its ethnic composition. Weirdly, it is a belief ignorant of obvious evidence to the contrary, such as Latino politicians who win office through the support of a broad range of voters, not to mention immigrants eager to avail themselves of such bedrock American values as the rights to assembly and free speech. It is a belief blind to the sometimes dolorous give-and-take of culture across borders.

For such partisans, those long lines at the border are symbolic of what they cannot control—the ever-flowing stream of humanity washing back and forth, leaving its mark on the country. For them, the deep prints left by immigrants trudging through the chaparral are freshly made rather than timeworn. For them, an America that will be 25 percent Latino in as little as 20 years is no America at all. For these people, the tide must be stopped, the traversing must be contained. They see barbarians at the gates.

*  *  *  *  

Hundreds of years earlier, and thousands of miles away, soldiers gaze into the distance. They keep an eye out for banners of dust unfurling from stomping hooves. Somewhere out there in the steppes is a horde ready to sweep over them. They patrol a wall built to stop them.

The Great Wall of China, the most mammoth border wall ever built, is mortared with myths and misconceptions. First, there is the myth that the 4,300-mile-long structure can be seen from space. It cannot, as an astronaut from China was embarrassed to find out in 2003. Second, there is the myth that the wall, like the bristling back of a dragon (as the Chinese have sometimes described it), stretches across the country uninterrupted, a monolith of stone and sentry towers. It does not. Much of the wall, slowly erased by wind and sand over centuries, is barely noticeable in places. Further, the Great Wall is not a single structure but rather a series of “lesser walls” constructed over several dynasties. (The most picturesque, and the one whose image is conjured when speaking of the Great Wall, was built north of Beijing by the Ming dynasty in the mid- to late-sixteenth century.) Third, there’s the misconception the Chinese name for this wall translates into English as “great.” It does not. The Chinese name means “long.” But the most common misconception about the Great Wall, according to Julia Lovell, a Chinese history and literature professor at the University of Cambridge, is one held to centuries ago and believed to this day: stated bluntly, that the Great Wall was ever worth a damn. Its history, however, is valuable.

As China’s succeeding dynasties deployed armies across their dominion, needing to maintain control over various factions and regions in the vaunted “middle kingdom,” they sought to free themselves from the menace posed by the nomadic peoples to the north of them. “The first major clashes” between China and the north, according to Lovell, go back to the ninth century b.c., “when poems record that a northern tribe, the Xianyun, attacked the very heart of the Zhou dominion.” With their fantastic equestrian skills and attendant virtuosity at quick strikes, these tribes from the steppes were demanding of respect, but the Chinese were reluctant even to acknowledge them. These people wore pelts, they could not read, they lived in tents and hunted down their food. It was an insult that they so much as neighbored refined China.

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In The Great Wall: China Against the World, 1000 BC–AD 2000, Lovell describes how the Chinese “high cultural self-esteem resulted in a knee-jerk tendency to view the non-Chinese northern tribes as politically and socially inferior, as barely human and certainly not as worthy trade partners or targets of diplomacy.” As a result of their contempt “the nomads were left little choice but to extract the goods they needed through raiding.” Galloping on their stocky ponies, zipping arrows with lethal accuracy, these tribes pushed more than one dynasty to the brink, and in the end, after much bloodletting, forced emperors to do business with them, even extracting tribute in the form of jeweled riches and beautiful girls from the once-dismissive royal courts. The point, however, for these rulers was to keep the northerners out of China, to prevent them from despoiling its civilization. Thus the humiliation of a shakedown by warriors whose breath reeked of fermented mare’s milk was bearable. And sometimes, along with enduring payoffs, keeping the barbarians out meant an emperor had to lower himself further, building ruinously expensive ramparts and gates and stocking them with armed conscripts. This tactic, Lovell pronounced, “was often adopted as a defensive frontier strategy after all other options for dealing with the barbarians—diplomacy, trade, punitive military expeditions—had been exhausted or discarded. It was a sign of military weakness, diplomatic failure and political paralysis.” It was also a darkly comic sign of short-term memory. Because these walls, erected over and over again, never kept anybody out permanently. If anything, often the emperor ordering the construction of another set of walls was a barbarian whom previous fortifications were supposed to bar in the first place.

The Northern Wei are an example. In power for nearly three centuries, from the third to sixth centuries a.d., they were “one of the most powerful and long-lasting of the barbarian states to rule North China.” They were descendants of the Xianbi, whom, Lovell writes, in her characteristically pleasant, breezy way, “had not always been keen on Chinese culture.” But over the course of their rule, they slowly abandoned the roughneck ways of the steppe and took up the effects of Chinese civilization, learning and promoting everything—“farming, poetry, silk, wine and houses with roofs”—championed by the dynasty they trampled. Transformed by this edifying life, the Wei became targets for other northern barbarians, who thought of them as having turned soft. So the Northern Wei did what all Chinese did, as Lovell shows, chapter after chapter: they built walls to keep the enemy out. It did no good. They, too, were replaced, and these new rulers eventually adapted to Chinese culture, too. Yet more walls were to come, despite their proven futility as defenses. It would be as if France, contrary to the lessons of World War II, insisted on building wave after wave of new battlements along the old Maginot Line. But the Chinese weren’t obtuse, and Lovell points out that these series of barriers we’ve come to know as the Great Wall had a few other purposes.

The first, as could be inferred from China’s contempt for the north, is the walls were important of themselves as symbols of cultural divide, what Lovell calls “the embodiment of the imperial, Sinocentric attitude to the outside world.” There is the “middle kingdom,” and then there is everybody else. For China to exist—or more accurately, for China’s rulers to preserve a culture allowing them to rule unopposed—it could not allow other modes of thinking and behaving to creep into its society. But their mistake was to believe walls could “mark a hard and fast boundary between nations and cultures, and often between civilization and barbarism.” The mistake was to believe boundaries between peoples and countries aren’t malleable.

Over millennia, China’s history has proven that border walls, even as symbols made of tamped-down earth or towering rock, are inherently hollow: not only do they fail to keep the rest of the world at bay, but they are pathetically useless at maintaining the political and cultural reality of the state that erected them. China’s civilization was entwined with the barbarians’; there was no virgin land to protect, no Rubicon to defend. Chinese civilization was perfectly capable of surviving, if not thriving, under rulers such as the Northern Wei. And it wasn’t as if China didn’t flirt with the ways of the north. “[T]hrough great stretches of its past China has been ruled,” Lovell writes, “by emperors and generals in love with the culture of the northern steppe,” some going so far as to erect tents in their palaces and make use of “barbarian” artifacts such as “cavalry, yurts, tunics, polo.” Nonetheless, the Great Wall and the misguided thinking it represented couldn’t be pulled from the embrace of China’s rulers. These truths about deep affinities with the Other were eclipsed by a self-serving need to perpetuate a war already lost, by the eternal fight to keep China free of foreign influence—for China’s rulers to stay in control. Even the Communists, Lovell writes, were quick to exploit this xenophobia for political purposes, spending money to refurbish parts of the hoary Great Wall’s defenses, harnessing its symbolism to promote themselves as “inheritors of a tried and tested model of the unified, authoritarian Chinese nation supposedly established 5,000 years ago.” A shared disdain for outsiders notwithstanding, the Communists were indeed worthy heirs, because they understood the Great Wall’s second purpose: it served as much to hem people in as keep them out. In the northwest part of ancient China, where walls were staffed with soldiers charged with protecting trade routes along the Silk Road, part of their garrison duties included “policing ingoers and outgoers, preventing Chinese civilians from fleeing . . . and evading their tax and corvée obligations.” A Western archaeologist who unearthed walls in the region “inferred that a subsidiary rampart he discovered . . . might have been designed to prevent Chinese fugitives from escaping too easily into the salt flats beyond.” Even as today’s China has opened wide to do business with the West, and, reluctantly, has allowed exposure to cultures from beyond, that element of internal control is there, Lovell writes, in “the rise of narrower, more tightly defined and legislated modern expressions of national identity.” In the Western, liberal way, a Chinese citizen can say whatever he wants, as long as what he’s saying—whether in a novel or a speech or internet chat room—is antiforeign. His words must serve as material for a wall never ceasing to rise and rise, blocking out what lies on the horizon, a view he can sometimes see through the cracks pushed open by imported Western capital and its accompanying culture of consumerism. China will let some of the world in, but the walls must remain up.


Sometimes, though, border walls can be pushed farther and farther out to acquire more of what’s beyond a kingdom’s reach. Their purpose can be aggressive, as the Great Wall’s certainly was. These supposed defenses, Lovell writes, were used by China not only “to control lucrative trade routes” but also to grab up land. China built walls as far north as what is today the inside of modern Mongolia. “Indeed,” Lovell writes, “the position of these walls gives the sense that they were designed not to defend China but to occupy foreign territory, to drive the nomadic inhabitants out of their land and to facilitate the setting up of military posts that would police the movement of people across these areas.” One way for China to avoid trading with the loathsome north “was, presumably, to invade and control their areas of production.” And they did. “It shows,” Lovell goes on, that if walls are built “in the middle of newly invaded and occupied territory . . . they become a prop to expansionist colonialism.” But walls alone aren’t enough to hold on to new lands, and they certainly do not make a country any more secure from invasion. Chinese soldiers stood on the parapets, kept an eye on the barbarians, and still the north came and overran them. A wall, as Genghis Khan said, is only as strong as the people who defend it. Or to paraphrase him, a wall is only as imposing as the people who wish to overcome it allow it to be. China’s disregard for diplomacy guaranteed that differences with the north would be settled by the sword; a wall wasn’t going to stop any tribesman from his making his point. Yet China and its revered and recognizable culture remain. In the end, China absorbed its invaders. The barbarians did not drive their civilization into the ground.

*  *  *  *  

Hundreds of years later and thousands of miles away, soldiers keep the watch along another wall. Across from them are a people whom some in their country see as a collective blade held to the throat of their nation. Their wall, too, the country claims, is for defense. But it, too, may well be an instrument to subjugate enemies and, finally, scatter them.

The world is hard-pressed to agree on where Israel’s borders are. They were first set in the armistice of 1949, the so-called Green Line, after fighting with Palestinians led to the creation of Israel in 1948. But after the Six-Day War in 1967, when Israel repelled an attack by its neighbors, it wound up in possession of new lands. East Jerusalem. Gaza. The Golan Heights. Sinai. The West Bank. Her borders have grown, though the international community only recognizes the land behind the Green Line as Israel. As victory spread its range north, south, and east, Israel, with these occupied territories, was in charge of the lives of hundreds of thousands of non-Jewish Arabs. For a state defining itself as Jewish, this situation is not without complications. Add to it the Palestinian’s nearly Sisyphean struggle to forge a viable country from the slivers of land left to it, and the complications morph into impossibilities.

In the late 1970s, Israel confronted its untenable situation. According to Graham Usher, a journalist and author of books on the Israeli occupation, it was then that a blueprint emerged for how Israel would administer these regions and their ever-growing number of Arabs: it would import Jews to the occupied territories. The plan, implemented under Menachem Begin, called for the creation of settlements in the central West Bank near the populous Palestinian cities of Hebron, East Jerusalem, Nablus, Ramallah, Bethlehem, and Jenin. One hundred and twenty-five settlements were to be built; a million Jews were to move into them by 2000. Moving so many Jewish settlers near “the spine of any future West Bank Palestinian state” would strategically hinder the likelihood of any such thing happening. The settlers would culturally and politically bind the territories to Israel. Today, there are more than 400,000 Jewish settlers in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. They live in 137 settlements and 100 “outposts,” which “may become the nuclei of future settlements.” (And on any given day, there are more than 200,000 Palestinians from these territories working in Israel or for Israelis, wrapping the areas deeper into Israel’s fold.) All of the settlements were established in “contravention of international law,” notes Ray Dolphin, a longtime emergency relief worker for the United Nations and nongovernmental organizations. The results of Israel’s policy have been, to use grotesque understatement, less than satisfactory: suicide bombers boarding buses in Israel then detonating themselves; guerrillas launching mortars on Jewish settlements; Arab political parties arresting and assassinating Arabs for control of Palestine. And then the parallel of all that woe: settlers gunning down their Arab neighbors, or the massacring of worshippers at mosque; the slaying of Yitzhak Rabin—these are the tremors indicating how shaky Israel’s control over this territory is. It’s enough to make a country put up a wall between itself and its problems. In 2002, Israel did just that.

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The West Bank Wall: Unmaking Palestine is Dolphin’s primer on all that has spooled Israel’s winding and looping 415-mile-long defense wall, and on what the wall portends. Along with an illuminating introduction by Usher, the book’s concision and detail of policy and events jibe well with its no-nonsense prose. It reads as a thorough, official report—unsurprising, given Dolphin spent three years reporting on “the humanitarian impact of the wall” for the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees. His account of the Palestinian–Israeli conflict is disheartening and the book’s conclusions about the wall’s ultimate purpose are disturbing.


There was, at first, no need for a security wall. “Israel’s policy since 1967 of colonising the West Bank through Jewish settlement and of attracting Palestinian day labourers into Israel,” Dolphin writes, “militated against a reinstatement of a physical barrier along the old Green Line.” But with the first intifada of the late 1980s, Israel turned to tougher security measures. In 1991, a blanket ban on travel was imposed on Palestinians; they could not move freely in Israel without special passes. Two years later, Yitzhak Rabin imposed a “general closure” on the occupied territories, effectively segregating Gaza from the West Bank. Following waves of Hamas and Islamic Jihad suicide attacks, Israeli prime minister Shimon Peres added “internal closures” in 1996 to the lengthening litany of security. Palestinians were split from each other; farmers could not reach their fields of tomatoes and cucumbers, their orchards of olives and oranges. Peres also installed army bases and “Jewish-only” bypass roads in the occupied territories, further isolating the West Bank from the Gaza Strip. The severity of these internal closures forced Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Authority to arrest 1,200 Islamist “suspects.” Hamas mosques and their related welfare agencies were shuttered—all in hopes of showing that Palestinians were willing, if not eager, to put down future attacks on Israeli citizens. With all these circumventions, Israel had all but erected a physical wall around the West Bank. However, in 1995, plans were in the works to add the finishing touch.

That year, Rabin commissioned his energy minister to design a security fence “more or less paralleling” the Green Line through the West Bank. A year later, Peres, who replaced the assassinated Rabin, approved construction of a “buffer zone” a little more than a mile wide along the Green Line, meant to keep Palestinians out of Israel. Along with soldiers and police, this zone, according to Dolphin’s book, would be outfitted to resemble a menacing barrier found in science fiction dystopias—“fences, electronic surveillance fields, helicopter patrols.” However, the succeeding prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, nixed the plan, and rather tellingly, for he was “wary that a security border along the Green Line might be mistaken for a political one.” So in 2000, Usher writes, Prime Minister Ehud Barak proposed the “imposition of Israel’s final borders based on a separation wall annexing those occupied territories Israel sought to keep in the West Bank.” Then in June 2001, his successor, Ariel Sharon, asked Israel’s national security director to create a plan preventing Palestinians from infiltrating Israel. He offered a permanent barrier along Israel’s eastern flank. The plan was approved. A year later, Israel’s defense minister was standing near the Israeli village of Salem, cutting the ribbon for the first phase of the West Bank wall.

As the wall coursed through the occupied territories, protectively surrounding major Jewish settlements and cordoning extra land around them, it gobbled up “large areas of prime Palestinian land . . . from their owners, whose access became dependent on a gate and permit regime.” In July 2004, the International Court of Justice ruled the wall violated international law, with the court, Dolphin points out, “underscoring the link between the settlements and the [wall’s] ‘sinuous route’”; by encompassing every major Jewish settlement in the West Bank, Israel’s security wall was nearly twice as long as the Green Line. The fallout from the wall’s construction reveals an unsavory motive behind Israel’s understandable need to protect its people. With the wall, these settlements, along with land for their expansion, were annexed de facto to Israel. The security wall demarked, perhaps permanently, the country’s political borders. What’s more, as Dolphin notes, “Should the wall remain along its current land-grabbing route, this will sound the death knell for a meaningful two-state solution [between Israel and Palestine], leading instead to a Palestinian ‘state’ of separated cantons, devoid of territorial, political or economic integrity and lacking East Jerusalem as its capital.” That sort of state cannot survive. It is Dolphin’s opinion this would satisfy the wall’s raison d’être.


There is no question that the threat of mutilating violence coming from what’s left of post-wall Palestine is real. But as Barak was quoted on the subject, “The Palestinians are the source of legitimacy for the continuation of the conflict. But as a military threat they are ludicrous.” So despite the suicide bombings and similar acts of terror, Palestine is hardly in the position of riding into Tel Aviv on tanks. By 2025, however, Palestinians will make up the majority in the Israeli-controlled territories between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River. Despite its settlements, Israel cannot maintain a primarily Jewish state. The existential threat to Israel posed by Palestine isn’t military, according to Dolphin, it’s demographic. With the West Bank wall slicing choice chunks of mostly Jewish-occupied land for Israel and tossing back the rest to the Palestinians, “the notion of separation based on race or ethnicity,” Dolphin writes, “was becoming real.” The security policies of Prime Minister Sharon are understood through this prism. The tactics to accomplish this divide—“Jewish colonial settlement and the alienation of Palestinian land”—are not dissimilar to those used to create Israel. Neither is the coup de grâce required to make the division permanent, a blow Usher (quoting Baruch Kimmerling) calls “politicide”—the annihilation of a state. In 1948, Israel delivered the blow by razing some 400 Palestinian towns and villages and expelling 750,000 people. Ironically, with the territories gained from the Six-Day War, a victorious Israel was left to confront its “native problem” all over again. Sharon’s plans to keep Israel “safe,” Dolphin writes, address that “problem.” He unilaterally withdraws Israel from the Gaza Strip, where “the number of Jewish settlers in the Gaza Strip had never attained a demographically critical mass,” a move made out of “the desperate fear that . . . Israel will one day find itself responsible for its 1.3 million residents.” That same fear is behind plans to revoke permanent resident status of thousands of Palestinians. That fear pushes security walls through the West Bank, where towns “are being cut down the middle or surrounded and made into isolated enclaves, with a massive dislocation of trade, education, health services, access to religious sites and every facet of normal daily life.” That’s according to an open letter to then UN secretary Kofi Annan, penned by Israeli, Palestinian, and international peace activists in late 2005. It’s one of many documents excerpted in Dolphin’s book, succinctly stating the dire matters Dolphin is tackling. The letter continues: “This political border (the real intention of the Wall)” is creating the conditions for “a form of ethnic cleansing” and will have “a negative impact” on “the future viability of Palestine.”

Usher, in his introduction, is specific as to how Sharon hoped that “negative impact” would materialize. With all the controversy generated by the security wall, the conflict between Israel and Palestine would be reduced “to a Kashmir-like border dispute within the West Bank, while allowing [Sharon] the time to consolidate Israel’s demographic supremacy behind the wall and territorial and military control beyond it.” Meanwhile, Palestine would be crippled. If Israel’s new prime minister, Ehud Olmert, keeps to Sharon’s course, and should internecine fighting continue to rage between Hamas and Fatah for control of the Palestinian Authority—a fight exacerbated by the US, Israel, and the European Union cutting off aid to the PA since the ascendance of Hamas in parliament—the chances of a successful Palestinian state will deteriorate. Assuming there’s no commanding international call to dismantle the security wall, and assuming there isn’t a deafening cry in Israel and Palestine for a shared binational state, then, according to Usher, Jordan absorbs what’s left of the West Bank and Egypt takes the Gaza Strip. Palestine will exist no more. The wall would have done its job. The barbarians will be gone.

Even so, it would be hard to believe these newly minted Egyptians and Jordanians wouldn’t pursue the cause of Palestine, that they wouldn’t use the muscle of their stronger and more stable countries to get their land back. Israel, in Usher’s words, “will remain a garrison state, dependent on US military aid and diplomatic support and so vulnerable to changes in US policy.” Worse, as long as Palestinians are not independent, “Israel may be a secure state but it will not be accepted in the eyes of the peoples of the region or in the larger Muslim world . . . or, increasingly, Europe.” Israel would have successfully entombed itself.

*  *  *  *  

Hundred of years earlier, and thousands of miles away, soldiers man the walls of a presidio. They keep an eye to the north for Apaches and Opatas. The Spanish believe this land can become theirs, the Indians know this land is theirs. Amid the slaughter and settlement, the land becomes all of theirs; and a nation flowing toward them from the east confronts the frontier’s paradox.

By the seventeenth century, silver was found in New Spain, in what is now the Mexican state of Zacatecas. The wealth excavated from the ground bestowed the promise of commerce on the northern lands surrounding the mines. Armed civilians traveled north to seize opportunity but encountered resistance. “Settlers found increasingly well-mounted and well-armed adversaries”—Indians—“whose seminomadic practices made their homelands hard to invade.” Jesuits established missions, hoping to create oases of European civilization in no-man’s-land. Beyond the missions, one of them wrote, “the absence of both order and a civilized existence was the rule.” The Spanish Crown believed them. “The fear of barbarians, more than anything else,” motivated the government “to see the frontier as a line dividing the empire from stateless forces of nature.” Presidios were established, “in places turning the frontier into a literal military front.” They are the closest thing to a border wall ever built in Mexico. Even when Apaches attacked settlers in the early 1830s, ferociously taking back territory wrested from them, no attempt was made to wall off the north.

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To do so would ignore the landscape, “where Mexicans lived like Indians; and where Indians led Mexicans into battle.” The farthest reach of Mexico’s border, where cultures commingled, was a “fugitive landscape,” writes Samuel Truett, an associate professor of history at the University of New Mexico. It is a place that “persisted rather than retreated, moving like an apparition at the corners of the state’s eye.” Truett’s book, Fugitive Landscapes: The Forgotten History of the U.S.–Mexico Borderlands, reinforces what fiction by Carlos Fuentes and John Nichols and movies such as John Sayles’s Lone Star have said: the regions around borders defy the categorization governments wish to put on them. It’s a paradox: the divide both connects and separates.

For Truett, the “transnational relationships”—commercial, political, and cultural—between Arizona and the Mexican state of Sonora in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries make the point. The desolate area was laden with copper, and the money to be made off the red ore drew Americans and Mexicans together. It was a hopeful partnership. Both would get rich. They would step into the modern future hand in hand. By the late 1850s, US capital paid for mines in border towns of Arizona and Sonora. A pattern was established: the mines depended on cheap Mexican labor, and laborers and business depended on relatively high US wages and spending in Mexico. As early as the 1870s, another pattern was set: Mexican statesmen lamenting that their fellow citizens had to cross the border for work. Meanwhile, racial tensions flared as Anglo encountered Mexican in this barren land, seized by the US not so long ago. These Americans, writes Truett, “assimilated the region to an older idea of frontier space, one peopled by savages, not real citizens, and thereby justified its annexation.” Anglo thugs, nicknamed “cowboys,” sacked Sonoran towns. They robbed and murdered Mexican workers. In 1857, a group of bloody-minded Americans eager to annex Sonora invaded the town of Caborca. They were captured and executed by the Mexican army. By 1880, US businessmen seeking to protect their interests proposed a border patrol—to protect Mexicans from Americans. Some decades later, Pancho Villa, with his raids into US border towns, would pay back the hospitality, reinforcing the idea that the border was a savage land. Yet never once did a wall go up on the border.


Walls of sorts did go up in a US mining town in Sonora in 1902. The Mexican government allowed the Cananea Consolidated Copper Company to build a town on public ranchland. “The CCCC,” writes Truett, “donated a fixed number of the lots to the municipal government to use for its public buildings, and in some cases, to rent or to sell on its own behalf. The company then kept the remaining lots as its private property.” Soon the company marked its territory, much of it long occupied by men and families, now considered squatters:

It has “put wire fences in every direction obstructing streets and avenues,” complained petitioners . . . “leaving hundreds of thousands of souls with no means of communicating, or entering or exiting their own homes.” Police patrolled the fences, forcing residents to humiliate themselves—in the words of several petitioners, “transforming ourselves into reptiles, in order to crawl under the wires,” for which they were fined and even jailed.

Mexican lawmen helped the copper company to evict the squatters. “Thus corporate managers,” writes Truett, “and their hired guns” enforced “their visions of industrial order.” There was money to be made. US investment in Mexico, Mexican labor in US companies. The partnership, as it stood, was untenable. Ultimately, it would spark the 1910 revolution.

“As the Mexican Revolution raged below the border and as the US moved toward World War I, fears of unmade landscapes—of threatened invasions of a landscape created through prior invasion of others—consumed Americans as they never had before,” writes Truett. Mexicans raced into the US for refuge from the fighting. Villa shot his way through towns. Mexico was now seen as hopelessly backward, a long-forgotten business partner. That the children of these Anglos spoke Spanish, that Mexican married white American, that both had the blood of the Apaches on their hands, that border Mexicans and Americans were all pioneers—this history vanished from their hearts. “US border residents imagined themselves as persisting frontier heroes,” writes Truett, “and these new heroes held the line against barbaric Mexicans.” And to keep the barbarians out, you must build walls.

*  *  *  *  

With a newly Democratic Congress puzzling over which wires to snip to dismantle Iraq, the Secure Fence Act of 2006 should not see life any time this year. But there’s a presidential election in 2008, and should the failures in Iraq drag on, a more attractive topic will be presented to the electorate. There’s danger next door. We will be overrun. America will not be recognizable. Latino mayors, congressmen, writers, professors, doctors, lawyers, maids, janitors, construction workers, and, of course, criminals, but also Major League third-basemen and pitchers and NFL quarterbacks and linebackers: Is this what you fear? Our civilization will not hold. Some do not speak English, some do not speak Spanish, all of them know ABC, NBC, CBS, and, yes, Univision, but you watch that, too, for the girls: Is that what you fear? Look at China. Look at Israel. Yes, look at them.


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