What would really be involved with building a Wall

If you watched the news yesterday than you know that inimitable Presidential Candidate Donald Trump accepted an offer from Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto to take a jaunt south of the border and say hello. And indeed, that’s what the Donald did. It was kind of a public relations disaster for the Mexican President, who is apparently the “second most unpopular man in Mexico,” (after Donald Trump, of course).

In any case, after his lightning visit, Trump camp back and delivered a speech in Phoenix about his immigration proposals. Anyone who thought that the Donald was going to back off of some of his more outrageous ideas was, of course, sadly mistaken. The Donald doubled down on his promise to build a wall with Mexico, and doubled down on his promise to make Mexico pay for it.[1]

John Oliver has previously taken down Trump over his proposal to build a wall, and I’m not going to regurgitate that here, because Oliver’s explanation is much more brilliant than anything that I could produce. Or to point out that Trump’s promise to make Mexico pay for the wall is complete nonsense, and that no thinking person – and I include some of the Donald’s supporters in this designation – believes that he means it. Everyone knows that he’s bullshitting. Some people just like the way that sounds. (As in “yeah, fuck you Mexico!”)

But I do just want to point out what’s involved in building a wall and using it to keep citizens in our out, that people haven’t really thought about.

There is a model for wall building that we can examine closely, and that model comes from the Deutsche Demokratische Republik (DDR), more popularly known as East Germany. This country, which was formed out of the old Soviet occupation zone – the French, British and American occupation zones became West Germany, before these two countries were unified – was very concerned with keeping their citizens in, rather than letting them out. After suffering many years of defections to the West, the East German regime decided to build the Berlin Wall in 1961. In fact, the 55th anniversary of its commencement passed just a few days ago, on August26th.

But the DDR regime didn’t just build a wall in Berlin (which was essentially an island inside the East German state). No, they built a wall – or more properly, two fences with a number of border fortifications – along the entire border between East and West Germany. This border was fortified in stages, and these fortifications reached their apex in 1967, and included all of the following:

  • A 5-kilometer restricted zone before you could even reach the border (for which you had to have special permission to go there if you didn’t already live there). [2]
  • A “hinterland” fence (Signalzaun), which was the first border fence.
  • A perimeter behind the first border fence, which could include runs (Kettenlaufanlagen) along high-risk sectors of the border patrolled by dogs. These dogs were normally chained to 100-meter steel cables.
  • A series of watchtowers (Beobachtungsturm) and bunkers.
  • An outer border fence topped by barbed wire (Stacheldrahtzäune) that was generally about eight feet high.
  • Anti-vehicle barriers in certain parts of the border, where the fences were susceptible to being rammed.
  • A control stripe (Kontrollstreifen) running parallel to both border fences.
  • Anti-personnel mines in certain parts of the Kontrollstreifen.

In effect, then, there were eight separate measures designed to keep East Germans from escaping to the west. In addition, as anybody who has seen Bridge of Spies knows, East German border guards would literally shoot you if they caught you trying to escape over the border.

Yet despite all of this, people still escaped! Estimates are that for the period from 1961 through 1989, when the DDR was dissolved, there were something in the order of 40,000 escapes across the border, including the Berlin Wall.[3]

The old East German border fortifications then, are a good example of what kind of security measures would be needed to actually create a secure border between one country and another. [4] Needless to say, the American border with Mexico is much longer than the East German border was with West Germany, and you would have to find border officers who would literally be willing to shoot-to-kill anyone coming over the border.

Finally, if the Donald were to succeed in building a wall between the United States and Mexico he would discover another issue with his plan: that there is an approximately 1200-mile-long coast line along the Gulf of Mexico from the top of Florida to the south of Texas. And more coastline in California. For people who couldn’t make it across a USA-Mexico wall, that’s a lot of coastline through which they could enter.

Don’t believe me? See the War on Drugs and how successful that hasn’t been.

[1] The Donald apparently didn’t talk about this part of his proposal with the Mexican President while he had his ear.

[2] My own grandfather lived in the small town of Harbke, which was within the restricted zone when the DDR was still a separate state, and that made it virtually impossible to visit him there. Visiting anyone in East Germany was fraught with extraordinary difficulties.

[3] Roughly 616,066 East Germans are believed to have escaped during this period. Some of them escaped through other countries, such as Poland or Czechoslovakia; some defected after having received permission to go abroad; a few were ransomed by the West German government.

[4] One can also look at other famous borders, including the Korean demilitarized zone and the barrier between Israel and the West Bank for examples of borders that are quite secure, and what is required to make them so.

About a1skeptic

A disturbed citizen and skeptic. I should stop reading the newspaper. Or watching TV. I should turn off NPR and disconnect from the Internet. We’d all be better off.
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