The spreading of Wall-Mart

In many communities a heated debate rages about whether to welcome a new Wal-Mart to town. But there’s another Wall-Mart we should be debating. It’s the marketing of Walls to keep people different from ourselves out. These Walls can be seen from Israel to the US-Mexican border to your nearest gated community to now Iraq. What is it about Walls? People have used them throughout history to keep others out. They can make us feel safe; they can even produce safety. Look at Israel’s Wall in the West Bank. Suicide bombings and other forms of attacks are reportedly way down since its construction. Just this morning I heard on National Public Radio that American soldiers have started building a Wall late at night in a besieged Sunni neighborhood. The Prime Minister of Iraq now says he wants the Americans to stop. According to NPR, people in the neighborhood don’t want to be “caged in.” During a recent speech a gentleman asked me whether the physical development of US communities is undermining our sense of connection to one another and to public life. It’s a question I hear more frequently nowadays. The answer: a lot. Many new US communities are now gated, and some older neighborhoods have retrofitted themselves with gates, Jersey barriers, and Walls. I must tell you that when I thought about writing this piece, I felt a tinge of built-in ambivalence about Walls myself. (Even though people tell me that effective bloggers should always take strong and clear positions.) It’s not hard to understand why some people may be so fearful that they see no alternative but to build a Wall. Indeed, a wall may be a short-term response to acute or festering problems that have no apparent remedy. But my concern is that we see the Wall as the remedy. I can think of no society in which a Wall brought about peace and stability – whether here or abroad. It denies people their most basic aspirations to be a part of something larger than themselves and their close-knit circles. It allows us to put our hands over our ears, to shut our eyes, to close off our hearts to others. It is a form of escapism that only comes back to bite us. Now, I do not intend to sound utopian here; I am no utopian. I believe we must be practical and pragmatic in these matters; I also believe that our pragmatism must be informed by a deep sense of ideals – that we have faith in ourselves that we can do better. This means being clear that it is much easier to build Walls than to tear them down. It means that we must not reach for “Walls” as a way to sidestep alternative solutions or to face up to our own missteps. Our efforts should be in trying to scale the Walls that others have built, not to build new Walls. Building a Wall gives rise to the stench of defeat. The Wall itself is the very symbol of defeat. It signals to everyone in concrete terms that we cannot find a way forward. It suggests that some lives are more valuable than others. It turns the people we are seeking to keep out into “the other,” a pawn, an objectified opponent. Maybe there are short-term reasons to build a protective wall. But the spreading of Walls should tell us something about our own society and where we find ourselves. The building of Walls should make us stop to consider what we are doing and whether our current approaches are working – whether they are pragmatically effective and true to our ideals. Is our plan to build Walls whenever we cannot solve a problem?