A Response to "Walls Against Heaven"

By Preston Huennekens on November 21, 2018

Kanishk Tharoor is a writer whose work appears in The Atlantic and the Guardian. In addition to his writing, he hosts the "Museum of Lost Objects" podcast for the BBC, which highlights the fascinating stories of the historical artifacts destroyed by ISIS during their rampage through Syria and Iraq.

Tharoor recently published a piece on the website Popula entitled "Walls Against Heaven: On borders, and other eschatological fabulisms." Tharoor introduces readers to story of Sallam the Translator, whom Abbasid caliph al-Wathiq ordered to travel to Alexander the Great's mythical wall in the 9th century to ensure that it was still standing. Rather than giving us a history lesson, however, Tharoor uses the tale of Sallam the Translator to lecture against national borders and border barriers.

He accuses modern politicians of "building border wall after border wall in an unceasing effort to make our imaginary lines more real and enduring." Why does Tharoor find these lines "imaginary?" Borders have separated different political groups for centuries. The Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 codified and solidified the borders of Europe, formalizing what had been practiced for many years. Most of the non-Russian republics of the former Soviet Union kept their borders after the 1991 collapse of the USSR. The constituent states of Yugoslavia kept their subsequent independent borders largely intact despite fighting brutal wars to alter them. With a few notable exceptions, the borders of modern, developed states have remained mostly unchanged.

Tharoor bemoans the continued construction of physical border walls, stating that "their power is often more symbolic than it is concrete." This statement ignores the successful implementation of border barriers in states such as Hungary and Israel. Addressing President Trump's demand for a border wall, Tharoor writes that, "If Americans clamor for a wall on the border with Mexico, it's because they see existential threats on the other side, swarming hordes of migrants, caravans of MS-13 gang members and Islamist terrorists slouching towards the Rio Grande. Gog and Magog are here and about to apply for asylum. Many Trump voters want the wall not just to feel safe but to confirm that their fantasies are real."

Fantasies? In 2015, El Salvador had the highest murder rate on Earth. Along with Guatemala and Honduras, the Northern Triangle states are some of the most violent countries in the world. Many of those traveling in the recent caravan hail from the Northern Triangle. The Department of Homeland Security stated that the caravan included 270 people with criminal histories and includes gang members. Further, many of those who journey north come not because of widespread violence, but because of economics. Their own economies limp along, helped by remittances flows. In 2017, 19.5 percent of Honduras' GDP could be attributed to remittances. In El Salvador and Guatemala, the figures were 18.3 percent and 11.5 percent, respectively.

So, the group Faroor identifies as "Trump voters" have reason to believe a border wall would keep them safe. The undesirable aspects of illegal immigration are not creations of "fantasy." They are quite real. Whole neighborhoods are affected when immigrants and their children fall under the sway of deadly transnational gangs like MS-13. People see how it changes entire communities. Workers feel the pinch when they compete for limited jobs with aliens. For Tharoor to dismiss negative aspects of illegal immigration as "fantasy" is to ignore the well-founded concerns of millions of Americans.

Tharoor’s thesis argues that "Walls are built because they can be, because a ruler can make the implausible real." Perhaps, but walls are built for other reasons as well. Hungary constructed their fence as a response to thousands of Middle Easterners pouring into their country through the Balkans. Israel constructed a border barrier with the Palestinian portion of the West Bank, greatly reducing the number of suicide attacks. Ukraine is currently building a wall on its border with Russia to prevent further armed aggression. These are not displays of power or propagandizing great works projects – they are targeted security measures taken to protect citizens of the state from outside threats.

Tharoor appears to disdain the very concept of borders, whether they are marked by barriers or not (such as that between Canada and the United States). This is not to say I am offering an impassioned defense of the proposed Trump border wall. I am not, and actually think that other measures would accomplish much of what the president wants done. But the existence and defense of borders is not some archaic, primitive, or outdated concept. Borders are a key part of the modern state, and erecting barriers where they are needed is not necessarily a demonstration of power for its own sake. Sometimes, it is simply a matter of necessity.

Topics: Border Wall