This I believe: Fences do not belong along the edges of democracy
When I lived overseas in 1983, I kept a journal. And I clearly remember drawing the only sketch included in it, of an incredibly stark border fence cutting between East and West Germany.
My sketch provides the perfect model for fence building between nations. Really, those East Germans and Soviets had the border issue all sewn up in those days. I know this because I had a sideline seat to the Cold War, as an intern for Stars and Stripes, the U.S. military paper based in West Germany.
My sketch shows four elements of that border near the Fulda Gap, which would have been ground zero in any war between West and East. Nearest the West German side was a small stone border marker from the 17th century, delineating one part of Germany from another part. It was a line borrowed by the Allies after World War II to partition Germany.
Will they use old-style border markers for any future project between the U.S. and Mexico? It certainly adds nostalgia and history to an edifice like this.
The next part of my sketch shows a tall, pointed pole painted in red-and-white stripes. This was East Germany’s warning to the Western world, meaning “Hey you, Achtung, stay away from our border.” As if a person really needed a warning to stay away from what comes next.
An imposing double fence is the third part of my drawing. It was covered in both razor wire and trip wires that, on the East German side of the fences, would trigger machine guns or mines.
Again, I must recommend those barber-pole warnings for the upcoming project in the U.S. Americans don’t want to endanger themselves by helping Mexicans or others who might become impaled or hung up on or between the fences, or riddled with bullets, or maimed by mines and left clinging to life.
The fourth and last element of this border scheme included a wide and deep ditch, on the East German side, so that no one could drive a vehicle through the double fencing. I’m sure American government contractors won’t need my sketch to tell them on which side to place this ditch for the new project.
The young American soldier who gave me that tour in 1983 told this story, about a white cross on the West German side:
“That’s where a boy and his father tried to cross. The boy hit the fence and set off the guns by hitting the trip wire. He was shot almost to death, and his father was captured by the East Germans, who left the boy groaning and dying. American soldiers could hear and see him but not help him. To do so would have violated the Warsaw Pact and other border agreements.”
I know I’m now throwing in too many elements for the American/Mexican fence. I would not recommend white memorial crosses. Those might be a little too precious for the mood they’ll want to set.
I also would not recommend tours of the U.S.-Mexican border area given by American soldiers telling heart-rending stories. In 1983, the newspaper sent me and five other interns to the East/West German border, to show us why a U.S. presence in Europe was still necessary and to make the evil of our opponents palpable.
As a 21-year-old, I visited that border between West and East, easily recognizing it for what it was: a crude and barbaric divider separating families and culture.
This I believe: Such borders and separations do not belong along the edges of democracy.
To build a fence in the United States is to forget the lessons of that fence and wall in East Germany. To build a fence in the United States is to replace the civilization of policy, diplomacy, laws, and guest-worker programs with the barbarism of razor wire and guard towers.
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