The Trouble with Walls: Do They Enhance Security?

At one point during my adolescence, an elder of my church took me aside to speak to me about walls. Walls, he said, are a protection against things on the other side, the same way religious rules and regulations are a protection against the world outside. Hence, you should feel protected within our community and not fight against these walls. Although I wasn’t able to express it properly at the time, I felt very much at unease with this metaphor. And my unease has continued. Of course, he was right; walls can and oftentimes do offer protection from outside forces, for instance forces of nature. This, with insistent endurance, the three little piggies built their houses until finally the big bad wolf, a symbol of nature, was kept at bay.

“But this is of course only half of the story. At least two other issues need to be addressed to do justice to the idea of walls. One of them is, who is making the decision why a wall is needed and secondly, what is it that is to be kept at bay.”


As is well known, there came a point in the history of humanity when humans moved from a nomadic lifestyle, giving only limited shelter, to a more settled one. This is known as the Neolithic Revolution. People settled down after having learnt the secrets of agriculture, which relieved them of the need to move to where the food was. At this point, house walls began to appear. But it soon did not become enough to secure only one house. Larger, collective areas begged for protection. The idea of a wall was consequently transplanted onto whole villages, then cities, then kingdoms. Even today, humans are fascinated by walls; witness only the masses of tourists visiting the Great Wall of China. Its length of over 1400 miles gives ample proof of how insistent this idea of walls had become already around the time of Christ.

A few centuries on, it was the Roman emperor Hadrian who built his wall as a part of the Roman border fortifications, also present in other countries under Roman rule.

Hadrian’s Wall


Below a picture from the German fortifications known as Limes Germanicus which from 83 to 260 AD kept the German tribes out of Roman territory

© B. Efinger


With these walls at the latest, it is not the forces of nature the emperors feared, it is other humans, variously called Barbarians hordes, Mongols, and/or one or many Other(s).

In more recent times, and with further social differentiation, walls became more frank about their double edged meaning: to keep people inside (think prisons or indeed Pink Floyd’s The Wall (1980), which described pupils trapped inside an inhuman education system ) or to keep them out (think the walls of Jericho or Troy). They have also become familiar as memorials (e.g. the Vietnam War memorial in Washington DC) and in religious rituals (e.g. the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem). Other walls have taken on an even more metaphoric meaning, sometimes even against themselves. Who remembers that Wall Street, the bastion of Anglo-American capitalism, had originally been erected by the Dutch settlers of New Amsterdam against the British? (cf.

The fascination with walls continues unabridged. Especially the older walls of human collective memory are being well preserved. Partly because of cultural reasons, partly because of tourist dollars. More recent walls still fueled by individual memories are also aging. Upon a recent business trip to Belfast, I was amazed at the peace walls and murals which I visited for the first time. Even there, work was carried out on the walls. They are a living memory and are being steadily rejuvenated. Here we find the uneasy connection between art, politics and security. Below a few pictures of the Shankill road wall, at once giving living proof of the continuation of protest and good wishes and giving witness to the fact that it might be in need of aesthetic improvement.

(© briel 2009)

(© briel 2009)


And indeed this is what is being done. Starting in April 2009, Belfast ‘peace walls’ gets a makeover,

Photo: PA


Other, “private” murals are in better shape, as the very famous one below.

(© briel 2009)

On the Republican side, a number of newer murals have also appeared, with older ones being redone.


Several memorials have also been erected, as the one below.

The Falls Memorial Garden, Belfast

What is not visible from this particular photograph is that the houses next to the Memorial garden and bordering on the wall, have cages over their gardens for fear of hand grenade attacks. And indeed it was the reality and possibility of such attacks which prompted the Belfast authorities to raise the height of the wall with a tall fence on top of it, thereby making it significantly higher than the Berlin Wall.

The Berlin Wall itself was a hotly contested wall. Built by the German Democratic Republic in 1961, it was hailed by its builders as “anti-fascist protection wall”. Conversely, the West viewed it rather as a prison wall and as part of the Iron Curtain. In 1989 it finally emerged from its notoriety when it fell and became a symbol of freedom and artistic expression.


But that was 20 years ago, and now it needs a facelift just like its Northern Irish pendant.


Especially the famous East Side Gallery, located on the Eastern side of the wall. While there had been murals and graffiti on the Western side of the wall practically from the beginning, it became an art object only after its fall.

True to German thoroughness, the individual pieces of the wall are being restored and then repainted by the original artists. It is hoped that this work will be finished by the 20th anniversary of the fall of the wall on 9 Nov. 2009.  In many ways, the focus has shifted in this instance from what the wall represented to the representation on the wall. Perhaps not the worst way to deal with it.


Returning once again to the Peace Wall of Belfast, there is a particular stretch at the end of it enlisting the following names: Israel, Palestine, Shankill, Falls, Berlin, Baghdad and Nicosia. This is of course the Who’s Who of recent walls. What interests me here in particular is the city of Nicosia, of which I have become a recent inhabitant.

(© briel 2009)

(© briel 2009)

Nicosia features its own walls and separations. Archeologically, it is most famous for the Venetian walls, a massive city wall built by the Venetians and defining its architectural circumference.


Here it can be seen from the ground in the difference between multilevel buildings and older single or at most two-storey buildings.

(© briel 2009)

More recently, it is its political partition which has grabbed the headlines, leaving it as the only remaining divided capital of the world. To ease matters somewhat, on 3 April 2008 the Ledra Street/Lokmaci border crossing was opened, after two walls on both sides had been demolished. This gave freer access to both Turkish Cypriots and Greek Cypriots weighing to cross over to the other side.

Ledra Street


Yet, it seems humans still can’t do without walls. And while we appreciate the historicities of fallen walls, e.g., Hadrian’s or that of the Great Wall, and while we celebrate the more recent fall of walls, such as the Berlin Wall, we know that the separation in people’s heads will take much longer than the demolition of the material construction. We have not ceased to fear and new walls are still going up. Take for instance the wall Israel is building on its borders with the West Bank and Gaza.

Abu Dis wall

Or think about the recent further fortifications of the Ceuta wall between the Spanish enclave and Morocco.


One can and should also think of the wall continuing to be built between the US and Mexico, in its length rivaling the Great Wall. A recent poll indicated that the majority of Americans is in favour of it and have not learnt to apply Ronald Reagan’s famous exhortation (“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” (1987)) to their own country. Incidentally, Gorbachev did heed Reagan’s advice and much of Europe prospered because of it.


The aesthetics of these pictures might try but fail  to hide the abject human suffering encountered at these borders, with close to 5000 deaths on the US-Mexican border from 1996-2008 (according to the Mexican Comisión Nacional de los Derechos Humanos (CNDH) (, or the close to 1000 deaths along the German – German border with 267 deaths on the Berlin wall alone from 1949 to 1989 ( , or the 11 people killed in only one week in September 2005 on the Ceuta wall which is quickly becoming Europe’s new Wall of Shame ( Or the thousands of people killed in the Cyprus conflict along newly created borders, including the disappeared (the disappeared is of course another group which are oftentimes impacted by such barriers. They are a global phenomenon happening at any and every wall, be it in Nicosia, in Belfast or elsewhere. (cf. “Timely words for Disappeared”, Belfast Telegraph, 6 April 2009 p. 24)

Walls then were and remain physical manifestations of psychological states, allegedly erected to keep the other at bay. But what they really are supposed to deter is not the other, but the Other in ourselves. Walls are not just archeological points of interest, but they are scars. As such, it seems quite schizophrenic to attempt to give such scars a facelift, since giving a scar a rejuvenational facelift means opening it up again. Yet these facelifts are still necessary. We just have to be aware of the fact that such facelifts also work against closure. They are a reminder of a particular conflict, but their meaning goes deeper. They remind us that we have still not learned to trust each other. And as long as humans do not recognize this fact, walls will continue to go up and will continue to separate us, from each other and from ourselves.



Hits: 2569



International Relations Student

written by Albert Anderson, June 16, 2009 

A really deep and in the same time simple look which has covered one of the most interseting concepts in the world politic problems. Great pice of writing and amazing pictures.
Wish to read more of the same kind.




The Trouble with Walls: Do They Enhance Security?
written by A. Fragkis, July 30, 2009 

Walls, by and large, are built not to enhance security. They are created to prevent the opressed from free ideas. History, as the author of this contribution graphically displays, is full of walls. Walls that are typically followed by the distruction of the means to get knowledge. The burning of books, the sensorship of the press, and the prevention or restriction of information is no more that the building of yet another wall….