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Tomgram: William deBuys, Creating Steelhenge on the Border

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Lately, we Americans have had little choice but to think about this country's imperiled Eastern border. No, I don't mean the Atlantic coast. What I had in mind were those borderlands in the Middle East where another 4,500 American military personnel have recently been sent and perhaps 50,000 were already stationed -- significantly more than when the Trump presidency began. I'm thinking of garrisons with American troops like al-Assad Airbase in Iraq, missiled (very carefully) by the Iranians only the other week. What surprises me is that the president who has long bad-mouthed those "endless wars" of ours, while dispatching ever more military personnel into their vicinity, hasn't thought about the obvious: building a Great Wall along the Iraq-Iran border.

After all, President Trump only recently brought up the subject of "options in the Middle East" in an address to the American people on the Iranian situation. Yet the man who rode a Trump Tower escalator into the last presidential race, touting the "great, great wall" he, and he alone, would build on our southern border to stop Mexican "rapists" from entering this country (the wall that Mexico would, of course, pay for) has yet to propose the same for the Middle East. And if Iran is indeed "standing down," as he claimed in that address of his, what an opportunity! (By the way, in relation to Iran, the U.S. has done little but stand up since the CIA helped overthrow a secular democracy there in the summer of 1953.) The president might even be able to build a new Trump Tower somewhere along that future wall, a cousin to the Trump International Golf Club in nearby Dubai.

However, as environmentalist and TomDispatch regular William deBuys, author of The Last Unicorn: A Search for One of Earth's Rarest Creatures, reminds us, while our attention remains focused on the unsettling Iranian-American face-off in the Middle East, the original "great, great wall" is indeed slowly being built along the U.S.-Mexican border to the tune of billions and billions of dollars. And what a Trumpian disaster it's likely to prove to be! Tom

Making America Great Again in a New Wild West
The Humanitarian and Environmental Disaster of Trump's Border Wall
By William deBuys

A new Wild West has taken root not far from Tombstone, Arizona, known to many for its faux-historical reenactments of the old West. We're talking about a long, skinny territory -- a geographic gerrymander -- that stretches east across New Mexico and down the Texan Rio Grande to the Gulf of Mexico. It also runs west across hundreds of miles of desert to California and the Pacific Ocean. Like the old Wild West, this one is lawless, save for the law of the gun. But that old West was lawless for want of government. This one is lawless because of it.

The Department of Homeland Security, under authority conferred by Congress, has declared more than 50 federal laws inoperable along sections of the U.S. boundary with Mexico, the better to build the border wall that Donald Trump has promised his "base." Innumerable state laws and local ordinances have also been swept aside. Predictably, the Endangered Species Act is among the fallen. So are the National Historic Preservation Act, the Wilderness Act, laws restricting air and water pollution, and measures protecting wildlife, landscapes, Native American sacred sites, and even caves and fossils.

The new Wild West of the border wall is an authoritarian dreamscape where the boss man faces no limits and no obligations. It's as though Marshall Wyatt Earp, reborn as an orange-haired easterner with no knowledge of the actual West, were back in charge, deciding who's in and who's out, what goes and what stays.

Prominent on the list of suspended laws is the 1970 National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, which, until recently, was the nation's look-before-you-leap conscience. The environmental analyses and impact statements NEPA requires might not force the government to evaluate whether a palisade of 30-foot-high metal posts -- bollards in border wall terminology -- were really a better way to control drug smuggling than upgrading inspection facilities at ports of entry, where, by all accounts, the vast majority of illegal substances enter the country. They would, however, require those wall builders to figure out in advance a slew of other gnarly questions like: How will wildlife be affected by a barrier that nothing larger than a kangaroo rat can get through? And how much will pumping scarce local water to make concrete draw down shallow desert aquifers?

The questions get big, fast. One that might look easy but isn't concerns the flashfloods that stream down desert washes. The uprights of the border wall are to be spaced only four inches apart, which means they'll catch flood debris the way a colander catches spaghetti.

Let's get specific. The San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge abuts the border in the far southeastern corner of Arizona. Black Draw, a gulch running through the middle of the refuge, is normally as dry as a hot sidewalk. When thunderstorms burst over the vast San Bernardino Valley, however, the floodwaters can surge more than 20 feet high. Imagine a wall of chocolate water sweeping up tree trunks, uprooted bushes, the occasional dead cow, and fence posts snarled in wire. Imagine what happens when that torrent meets a barrier built like a strainer. The junk catches and creates a dam. Water backs up, and pressure builds. If the wall were built like the Hoover Dam, it might hold, but it won't be and it won't.

In 2014, a flood in Black Draw swept vehicle barriers aside, scattering pieces downstream. Local ranchers have shown me the pictures. You could say the desert was making a point about how wet it could be. In fact, there's no mystery about what will happen when such a flood hits a top-heavy palisade. If a NEPA document were to evaluate the border wall, the passage discussing this eventuality might require its writer to invent a term for what a wall becomes when it lies flat on the ground.

On the other hand, if you leave gaps for floods to pass through, then smugglers and -- for Donald Trump and his base -- people of unacceptably dark skin color might come the other way. Not that they necessarily would. As local residents I talked to attest, active patrols, remote sensing, and improved coordination among law enforcement agencies have reduced illegal crossings in the San Bernardino Valley almost to zero, something current government officials don't point out but a NEPA document would.

With NEPA out of the picture, the responsible parties only have to claim that they'll figure out a solution later and, when "later" comes, maybe they'll have conveniently moved on to other jobs.

Pittsburgh on the Border

Meanwhile, there's another question that won't have to be dealt with: How much water will the wall's construction require? The answer matters in an area where water's scarce. Again, the San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge offers a useful vantage point for considering the question.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)

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