The world thought the era of fences was over when freedom bulldozed the Berlin Wall in 1989. The next era would be one of openness, right? Goods, people, and ideas moving about with ease. But look around. It's turning into one big Erector Set out there.
The US plans to build a 700-mile double-layer fence on its Mexican border. Saudi Arabia is working on its own desert-spanning fence – complete with buried sensors and face-recognition scanners – to seal itself from volatile Iraq. China just finished fencing off its largest city near North Korea. A berm-and-trench system now encircles Baghdad.
There's more. Israel's put up a barrier that separates it from most Palestinians, and the Egyptians are cordoning off the resort of Sharm el-Sheik. India is planning an 1,800-mile barrier along the Pakistani border. Thailand is building a 400-miler next to Malaysia. Even tiny Botswana (in Africa) and Brunei (in Asia) are fence-enthralled.
That's just the geopolitical concrete and metal. In the US, gated communities are the residential rage. Then there are the invisible, electronic fences to keep dogs in their yards and criminal offenders – tracked via ankle bracelets – off the streets.
At its basic level, a fence serves two functions: to wall in and to wall out. Imprisonment is a punitive step to restrict freedom. That's what makes walling-in socially acceptable as a punishment for crime, but abhorrent when it amounts to locking up entire populations, such as the hundreds of millions who lived behind the Iron Curtain.
Most of today's fences are about walling out bad influences, such as terrorists, drugs, and crime. Or they attempt to preserve the integrity of a border. Society views these barriers as more benign, because they aim to protect people who live inside them.
Throughout history, moats, walls, and stockades have performed that protecting function with varying effectiveness.
Today, Turks and Cypriots are no longer killing each other because they're separated by a fence. Israel's separation barrier has helped cut suicide bombings significantly. A strip of border fencing near San Diego has reduced illegal immigration there.
But a wall isn't always as secure as it seems. The pizza delivery guy knows the code at the gate and a terrorist or migrant can tunnel under, blast through, and circumvent a wall. As Robert Frost said, "something ... wants it down."
Indeed, fences are fraught with complications. They have side effects, such as slowing down legal commerce, increasing danger for illegal crossers, and segregating societies. They aren't always what they seem (gated communities can be more about exclusivity than security). And they can distract from other dangers. The Saudis worry about Iraq, but what about the explosive Islamic tension in their desert kingdom?
On a deeper level, fences stand as sentinels to unsolved problems such as economic disparity, inadequate law enforcement, and ethnic and religious hatred.
Barriers may be short-term necessities, even acts of last resort. As globalization shrinks the world, the unsolved issues on which they are built will need facing up to.