Human history is full of walls. The longer they stand, the more useless they become, it seems. Eventually they crumble, toppling the people and the mind-set that erected them.
In Sunday school we sang a song about the walls of the biblical city of Jericho. The lyrics recalled an Old Testament story in which the Israelites defeated that sinful city when they arrived in the Promised Land after wandering in the wilderness for 40 years. According to the story—and the song—the Israelites marched around Jericho once a day for six days, but on the seventh day they marched around it seven times. On the seventh circuit, the priests blew the trumpets, the people shouted, the walls fell flat and the Israelites took the city.
There are the various great walls of China, the first of which was built more than 2,000 years ago by Qin Shi Huangdi, the first emperor of China, as a barrier against invading Hsiung Nu tribes—Huns—to the north. The most famous Great Wall is the one whose remnants we still see. It was built during the Ming Dynasty, between 1368 and 1640, to protect the empire from Mongol and Turkic nomads coming in to raid from Mongolia and Manchuria. Later, Mao Tse Tung’s so-called Bamboo Wall sealed China behind the Communist ideology. Like all the others, that wall crumbled—in 1979. How we cheered at the time.
We cheered again when Germany’s Berlin Wall fell 10 years later, signaling the end of the Cold War. Erected after World War II with the blessing of Soviet leader Nikita Krushchev, that wall closed the border between East and West Berlin for 28 years, effectively halting daily migration as well as the defection of skilled workers from East to West that was wreaking political and economic havoc in the Communist bloc.
Centuries after the biblical Israelites marched and shouted and trumpeted down the walls of Jericho to enter the Promised Land, modern-day Israel is building a barrier along the West Bank, purportedly to keep Palestinian terrorists from terrorizing Israelis, but effectively removing substantial tracts of fertile land and water resources from the Palestinian state. Israelis call the barrier a “separation fence”; Palestinians call it an “apartheid wall.” It has the blessing of U.S. policymakers.
And now there’s talk of erecting a Great Wall of Texas to keep Mexicans from sneaking into the United States and stealing the good jobs—washing dishes in restaurants, mowing lawns, cleaning suburban homes, cutting, stitching, assembling, scraping, painting—of the American people. These are the same Mexicans whose standard of living the North American Free Trade Agreement was supposed to elevate, with all the U.S. investment that would flow south as Mexico opened its markets in compliance with the agreement. Opponents of Nafta argued the pact would create a “giant sucking sound” of disappearing jobs as American factories packed up and headed for Mexico’s cheap labor pools.
It would be laughable, this business of walls, were the consequences for the mobility of human resources not always so tragic. The only wall I know that did not crumble is the one that Humpty Dumpty sat on in the famous Mother Goose nursery rhyme. But then, Humpty himself fell off and died.
By Rosalind McLymont