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Ancient and Medieval Walls Only Worked if They Were Backed by Lethal Force. Is That Donald Trump's Plan?

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The Walls of Jericho Came Tumbling Down by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld
The Walls of Jericho Came Tumbling Down by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld
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According to the Book of Joshua (6:1-27), in 1400 BCE Joshua and his troops marched around the walls of Jericho along with seven priests blowing rams' horns once a day for six days. On the seventh day, they marched around the walls seven times. Then blasts of the horns were followed by a shout from the entire army--- and "the walls came tumbling down." With no further resistance, the city was destroyed.

The Great Wall of China was begun in the 7th Century BCE and eventually stretched 13,000 miles when it was completed more than 2,000 years later. Despite its length and solid construction, it often proved ineffective. It was considered more of a "scarecrow" than a defense. Without the Chinese army in front of or behind the wall ready to slaughter the enemy, the wall provided little protection. In addition to other failures, the Great Wall was breached several times by Genghis Kahn, whose army was equipped with crude weaponry by today's standard.

However, the wall was effective in some instances because the Chinese were not worried about "bad hombres" drifting into their cities for refuge or work. They feared invading armies. Since armies advanced slowly (no highways, trains, cars, or planes) defenses could be mobilized at the area of attack along the wall.

Who paid for the Great Wall of China? The various dynasties that built the wall would have liked the Mongol invaders to finance it. But alas it was taxpayers who footed the bill. One commentator notes that the wall was so expensive that during the Qin dynasty (221-227 BCE) "it crushed their economy, sparking a rebellion." And according to a popular legend, The Han dynasty (206 BCE to 220 CE) financed some of the staggering cost of the wall with a state-sponsored lottery.

Another famous wall, the one surrounding Vatican City, was built in the ninth century by Pope Leo IV after Saracen Pirates sacked St. Peter's. Despite the 39 foot fortification, several popes fled for fear that approaching enemies would easily breach the wall. In 1494 Pope Alexander VI escaped through a secret half-mile-long passageway when Charles VIII of France invaded Italy. In 1527, Pope Clement VII similarly absconded during the sack of Rome by Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.

No, Mr. President, contrary to your tweet, walls don't work 100%. Nor, as you declared, is the Vatican encased by the mother of all walls. Today there is no complete wall around Vatican City. Visitors can stroll down the Via della Conciliazione which opens into St. Peter's Square.

Fast forward to Barack Obama's "wall" around his home in Washington DC (actually part gate, part wall). Donald Trump has cited that "wall" as a rationale for his proposed 1900 mile wall across the US southern border.

In fact, Obama's "fortification" does not surround the entire property and the quaint see-through gate in front of the house is similar to ones throughout the neighborhood. Nowhere to be found is the menacing "10-foot wall" fabricated by Donald Trump. As the walls around the homes of many celebrities, Obama's wall is less to fend off alien invasions and more to protect against invasions of privacy--crowds gawking and paparazzi hoping to capture embarrassing photos. Even so, it provides only limited protection. For real protection, the Obama family has a Secret Service detail and a security booth in the driveway.

What accounts for walls that have proven effective against incursions? Three factors: relatively short lengths, which enable comprehensive surveillance, multiple layers of obstruction, and, the most essential factor, the use of lethal force against violators.

Only 27 miles of the 96-mile Berlin wall divided East and West Berlin. The initial wall was later fortified by "incorporating a row of subsidiary walls [the main wall was 12 feet high], trenches, electric fences, and an open 'death strip' overseen by armed guards in 302 watchtowers." The wall was also protected by one million land-mines and 3,000 attack dogs. And guards were ordered to shoot anyone attempting to escape.

The Israeli Gaza wall is a combination of a barbed wire fence and a ten-foot metal fence with electronic sensors that instantly report movement along the fence. The sensor tracking system is designed more to deter infiltration than to stop it, say the Israelis. The Gaza wall has worked to a large degree; it significantly reduced the number of murderous terrorist attacks.

Nevertheless, after the discovery of dozens of tunnels under the present wall Israel is now building a concrete wall spanning the entire 40- mile border with the Gaza Strip. It will extend deep into the ground to discourage tunnel construction (how deep is currently top secret); and powerful sensors will be installed to detect tunnels that approach the wall. When all else fails, the Israeli military is prepared to respond to breaches with lethal force.

If Donald Trump's wall is ever built to defend America against the "national emergency" of his imagined invasion of rapists, other criminals, and terrorists, will he too authorize lethal force when the wall alone fails to stop migrants seeking asylum? Is there any doubt? He has already given his frightening answer: "If they have to, they're gonna use lethal force," he said. "I've given the OK. If they have to. I hope they don't have to."

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Bernard Starr, PhD, is a psychologist, journalist, and professor emeritus at CUNY, Brooklyn College. His screenplay "The Crucifixion of Truth," a drama set in 16th century Italy and Spain during the Spanish Inquisition, has been optioned for a (more...)

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