The idea of building a wall to keep someone out (or in) is not a new phenomenon. The earliest sections of the Great Wall of China were built over 2,500 years ago with the most recognizable parts constructed over 500 years ago. Hadrian’s Wall in northern England was begun by the Roman Empire in AD 122 to define its northern boundary and prevent the movement of raiders. Most medieval cities had walls and fortifications to protect their people and resources in the event of an attack. All of these walls are early examples of political territoriality, which Sack (1986: 19, emphasis in original) defines as ‘the attempt by an individual or group to affect influence or control people, phenomena and relationships by delimiting and asserting control over a geographical area.’ However, prior to the modern era, there was not a systematic use of bounded territories to signify political claims (Murphy 1996). Instead, through most of human history there were small centers of power, such as the walled cities of the medieval era in Europe, which had absolute control only over nearby lands. Between these centers of power were loosely or un-administered spaces with overlapping and often contentious claims made by multiple kingdoms, city-states, or empires (Scott 2009).
Over the past 300 years, as technological advances in communication and transportation allowed the expansion of state administration, the precise role played by boundaries changed from defensive military lines, to markers of sovereignty, to sites for preventing the movement of undesired people (Rosière and Jones 2012). The oldest purpose of political borders was to mark military defensive lines beyond which one ruler would not allow the army of an opposing ruler to go. A few of these boundaries still remain in the contemporary world – for example, the demilitarized zone on the Korean peninsula or the line of control that separates Indian and Pakistan forces in Kashmir. These types of borders are anomalies where competing territorial claims are not settled and militaries maintain control of the zone that separates the two states.
Most contemporary borders, however, are no longer defensive lines. Rather they are mutually agreed-upon boundaries that separate different sovereignty regimes where one administrative and legal system ends and another begins (Brunet-Jailly 2011; Elden 2009; Murphy 1996). The creation of the United Nations after WWII formalized this system in which each UN member recognizes the territorial integrity and sovereignty of other members. Security barriers on political borders were largely unnecessary because the risk of invasion by a neighboring state subsided and was replaced by the performance of sovereignty in the form of a global visa and passport regime (Salter 2006; Torpey 2000). The border between Mexico and the United States, for example, does not mark a defensive line where each country is concerned about the invasion of the opposing military; instead, it marks the territorialized edge of different systems of law, economy, and politics (Craib 2004).
Over the twentieth century, the practice of absolute sovereignty over a bounded territory produced substantial wealth inequalities globally, which increased the desire of many people to move either to avoid deteriorating conditions in their home state or to seek better economic opportunities elsewhere (Agnew 2009; Baldwin et al. 2001). These movements, along with the possibility of hostile people or items passing into the state, resulted in a new purpose for borders as a location to prevent the unauthorized movement of people. The border barriers in the United States, India, and Israel – as well as the twenty-two other barriers begun since 2000 – must be understood in the context of this consolidation of authority over bounded territories and the subsequent divergence of wealth globally.
The average annual per capita GDP (in 2010 USD) of the countries that have built barriers since the fall of the Berlin Wall is $14,067; the average for the countries on the other side of these barriers is $2,801.
Consequently, the feelings of uncertainty from the global war on terror played a crucial role in justifying the construction of these barriers, but the underlying purposes and consequences cannot be understood through the narrow window of terrorism and security alone.
Although the stigma associated with building barriers on borders disappeared, barriers are still controversial, and even the terminology to describe these barriers is contentious. In Israel, the barrier is called the ‘security fence’ or the ‘anti-terror fence.’ In Palestine it is referred to as ‘the wall’ or the ‘Apartheid wall.’ The barrier itself also changes forms. In urban areas, near Jerusalem/al-Quds or in Qalqilya, it is a big concrete wall. However, the majority of the barrier is indeed a fence, but a very elaborate and expensive one. It has rolls of barbed wire, an accompanying road, as well as high-tech motion-detection systems. In English, fence and wall have distinct connotations. Fence sounds more temporary and permeable, evoking a picket fence or chain-link fence around a suburban yard. Wall, on the other hand, has the connotation of being much more permanent and solid with the strong sense that it blocks movement as well as vision. Neither accurately describes the entirety of the West Bank security project. Similarly, the US project is primarily a ‘fence’ but much more elaborate than the term normally implies. The Indian project is probably accurately described as a fence, but it also includes roads, barbed wire, and floodlights along its length. For clarity, throughout this book the more general term ‘barrier’ will be used to describe the new border security structures, except when quoting directly from interviews or other documents.
Although the decisions to build barriers on these specific borders relied on different justifications in the United States, India, and Israel, they were based on similar representations of the territory on the other side as ungoverned and the people as uncivilized. The feelings of vulnerability generated by the actions of a very small number of terrorists were reanimated and mapped onto narratives about modernity and civilization. These civilizational narratives subsumed other considerations and made the barrier on the border – which previously had seemed incongruous with democratic ideals of openness and freedom – now seem essential to protect those same ideals from external threats. The negative stigma associated with barriers after the Berlin Wall disappeared and the security projects were rapidly completed.
In all three cases, the territory on the other side of these borders was described as an ungoverned space, where modern sovereign-state practices that bring order and stability were absent or incomplete. Narratives of civilization and wilderness are not a novel aspect of the discourse of the global war on terror but, rather, are emblematic of the expansion of the sovereign-state system around the world throughout the modern era (McClintock 1995; Said 1979). European colonialism was imbued with the idea of bringing civilization and modernity to the ‘savages’ that lived in the wilderness, although the underlying motive was capturing territory for resources and labor. European explorers treated most lands they encountered as terra nullius, or land belonging to no one, because they did not find what they considered to be modern forms of governance (Carter 1989). In the process of colonizing these lands, they also instituted new forms of territorial administration based on maps, surveys, and censuses of the people, which eventually formed the basis for the decolonized states that emerged after WWII (Edney 1997; Winichakul 1994).
In the twenty-first century, almost the entire globe is administered space and is assigned to a single government that represents the territory at the UN. Consequently, the contemporary narratives about ungoverned space do not claim that these neighboring areas are wilderness exactly, but rather that there is not a properly functioning sovereign state there. The implication is that although the territory was assigned to a state, the process of actually taking control of the territory is incomplete (Fields 2010, 2011). Mitchell (2010) connects the contemporary geopolitical narratives about ungoverned space to the ‘broken windows’ theory of urban policing. The theory suggests that if broken windows, or other forms of vandalism, are allowed to persist in a neighborhood, other potential vandals could perceive it as a signal that vandalism is accepted and that rules can be ignored. In order to counteract this problem, proponents advocate increased policing, more surveillance, and swift punishments for minor infractions to ensure that people respect authority and behave in an orderly manner.
Moreover, Mitchell (ibid.) argues that the same idea is used to promote order in the global state system. Governments that do not maintain control in their territories are seen as a risk to the entire system and therefore require additional surveillance and policing to restore a basic level of governance. Similarly, rogue regimes that flout international obligations by not respecting the basic human rights of their citizens or by harboring anti-state actors such as terrorists are seen as a ‘broken window’ that needs to be repaired. The US National Military Strategic Plan for the War on Terrorism mentions these potentially ungoverned spaces specifically, stating that ‘terrorists benefit from physical safe haven when states grant them access to territory, or when they gain access to ungoverned, ill-governed, or under-governed space within states that lack effective control over their own territory’ (US Joint Chiefs of Staff 2006: 15). This view of the state system does not see sovereignty as the absolute right of every state, but rather contingent upon upholding these basic tenets of order and stability (Elden 2009).
The persistence of the idea of terra nullius in modern political debates is most evident in Israel and Palestine. The logic of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank is predicated on the argument that there is not another state structure in that territory and that they are historically Jewish lands. When Israel builds in East Jerusalem, across the Green Line (the 1949 armistice line), Palestinian officials say it is in their territory and an egregious violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which establishes rules for the treatment of civilians during times of war and which prohibits settling people in occupied territory. The Israeli government argues that the Green Line is not an international border and the West Bank was never a self-governing state. Further, they point out that the local populations were the ones that refused to recognize it as a border in 1949. In the official Israeli view, the West Bank is not a sovereign territory and there is not another state that is a party to the conflict, which renders the Fourth Geneva Convention irrelevant. Furthermore, statements by the Israeli government argue that the West Bank barrier is an example of the older purpose of borders as a defensive line that exists only to prevent the incursions of a threatening enemy on the other side (Israeli Ministry of Defense 2007). The Palestinian Authority is described as unable or unwilling to control its population, which means there is not a partner for peace and there is not an administration in the West Bank capable of upholding the obligations of a modern sovereign state. These statements argue that the barrier is temporary, only for security, and not meant to be a modern political border that divides different areas of sovereignty and administration. However, in practice, barriers often institutionalize distinctions through different sets of laws, economies, and politics, which, this book argues, is one of the primary goals of the Israeli barrier.
In the United States, Mexico is represented as a wild territory where the state is no match for drug cartels. Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, across from El Paso, Texas, is the quintessential example of this lawlessness. In US government statements and media reports, the Mexican government is described as either too weak or too corrupt to maintain control over its territory. In either case, it demonstrates that Mexico generally, and the borderlands specifically, are ungoverned spaces that lack a modern sovereign state. The border space is treated as untamed land that needs to be conquered, controlled, and brought within the sovereignty regime of the state (Brunet-Jailly 2005, 2006). The only short-term solution is to declare a state of emergency, to deploy the National Guard at the border, to increase the number of Border Patrol agents, and to build a barrier to prevent these uncivilized and violent practices from spilling over into the territory of the United States.
In India, Bangladesh is described as a state that cannot control its borders and cannot prevent radical extremists from operating within its territory. The government of India accuses Bangladesh of harboring separatist leaders and allowing the flow of weapons across the border because the Bangladesh government is too weak or too corrupt to bring order to its territory. Additionally, the disorder in Bangladesh is blamed for pushing millions of immigrants across the border into India to look for work. This concern is compounded by the physical geography of Bangladesh as a low-lying deltaic plain that could potentially be devastated by any sea-level rise that accompanies climate change (Karim and Mimura 2008). Consequently, India has to gain firm control over the borderlands to prevent that threat from spreading into India by building a barrier and by increasing patrols on the formerly open and sparsely guarded border.
Just as the territories of the neighboring states are represented as ungoverned spaces, the people on the other side of the border are described in ways that dehumanize them and make them appear unworthy of modern human rights. These ‘othering narratives’ began with representations of terrorists as evil, violent, and irrational people driven primarily by a hate for the modern freedoms of civilization. However, these same representations of good and evil, civilized and barbaric, were mapped onto the entire populations of the neighboring countries. In the process, the violent and deplorable behavior of a few people is perceived to be condoned or at least tolerated by all of the people.These othering narratives emphasize the negative characteristics of the people on the outside, which reinforces the feelings of the superiority of the members of the group (Paasi 1996, 1998). As the other across the border is dehumanized, basic human rights are connected to citizenship in the state, rather than understood as a universal concept. In the public discourse in each country, the people without the marker of democratic citizenship are denigrated and maligned as not respecting laws, as wanting to destroy the civilized order, and therefore not worthy of equal protection under its laws. These representations coalesce around the view that any measures necessary should be taken to prevent the evil-other from entering the territory of the state regardless of the consequences it might have for individuals, particularly if they are not citizens of the state.
While the United States, India, and Israel fortified borders based on representations of a threatening other on the outside, the European Union, at first glance, appears to be a counter-example. Indeed, over the same decade, the EU added twelve new members across eastern Europe, a single currency was adopted by several EU members, and internal barriers to movement were removed in many parts of the EU. There are two problems with this counter-argument. First, the expansion of the EU did not result in the removal of borders completely, but rather it shifted them to the edges of the new member states (van Houtum 2010). At these sites, there was a similar hardening of the border as these national borders became the edges of the EU (Kaiser and Nikiforova 2006). Secondly, many EU member states continue to grapple with the presence of an ‘internal other’ that is perceived to not be part of the dominant group (Johnson 2008; Johnson and Coleman 2012). These fears of internal others were exacerbated by the perception that residents of the new eastern European countries would move to the original EU states or that lax border controls could allow immigrants from Africa and Asia easier access. This sentiment is evident in the rise of right-wing political parties in western Europe and in the EU response to refugee flows during the Arab Spring revolts in 2011 (Bialasiewicz 2011; Williams 2006). Indeed, Saskia Sassen (2006) characterizes the militarization of the Mediterranean as the ‘Berlin Wall on water.’ Furthermore, Denmark reestablished its border checkpoints in 2011 and several other EU members are considering taking the same step (Steininger 2011). Consequently, beyond the veneer of integration, the EU exhibits many of the same exclusionary border-making practices as the United States, India, and Israel.
In sum, the fear that justified the barriers on each of these borders was not just about a deterritorialized terrorist threat, but specifically about the ungoverned space across the border where dangerous people are perceived to live and have the potential to threaten the stability of the modern sovereign state. By describing the territory as governed by a less-than-modern state and the people as less-than-human, it becomes much easier to imagine building an exclusionary barrier to protect ‘us’ from ‘them’.
This is an extract from Border Walls by Reece Jones.