Walls against the future

by Terence MacNamee

The Chinese Emperors built the Great Wall to keep out marauding barbarians from the north, but ultimately without success. The barbarians surged across the border, kept going till they got to the Forbidden City, and set themselves up as Emperors. (The wall is still there.)

The Romans, abandoning their ambition of conquering Scotland, built Hadrian’s Wall to defend the territory they had got, but eventually they had to leave Roman Britain to the marauding Celts and Anglo-Saxons anyway. (The wall is still there.)

The trouble with walls is that they last millennia and stay around to remind us of their ultimate futility.

Today our walls are not so permanent, but we are still building them. We build walls of concrete, steel and barbed wire, to keep out the tide of refugees and illegal immigrants. We may even try a “wooden wall” like the ancient Greeks – a naval blockade in the Mediterranean.

However, there are two inevitable paradoxes to the current situation of Western countries:

  • As an American man said who was helping out unaccompanied minors coming across the border from Mexico: if they all come here, the country will no longer be what they came here for.
  • If we concentrate on defending ourselves by building walls and fortresses, and so doing turn ourselves into a “security state”, our countries will no longer be what we wanted to defend.

The moral is clear but not consoling. They are coming, and yes, our countries are going to change. We could keep them at bay for a while, but we would have to become monsters to do it.

“Holding the line” or “holding the pass” sounds heroic but is really no longer an option. Populations shift, and so do patterns of power, cultures and languages. We need to be clear-sighted in preparing for the changes in our Western societies that are coming whether we want them or not.