Fencing out the Barbarians

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IN A.D. 122, the Roman Emperor Hadrian ordered construction of a wall that would run 73 miles across the width of England, from the River Tyne to Solway Firth. The idea was to keep barbarians from making trouble for the civilized people of Roman Britain. In the Third Century BCE, the Chin Emperor ordered that a series of walls erected by sundry border states be linked into a Great Wall that ran from the Gulf of Chihli to the edge of Tibet, about 22 times the length of Hadrian’s barrier. The wall succeeded in repelling many barbarians.

We no longer have barbarians. We have terrorists. It is hardly surprising that a nation whose citizens are being murdered should decide to construct a fence to stop the entry of terrorists, even though building such a fence requires demolishing homes, separating farmers from their fields, moving whole villages, and considerable hardship for the individuals affected.

India, therefore, is building a security fence, with all deliberate speed. Yes, India.

While the attention of the world focuses on the West Bank, India is surrounding Bangladesh with a fence about 2,500 miles long, similar in construction and purpose to that being built by Israel to try to protect itself from Palestinian terrorists.

India’s seven northeastern provinces are wracked by violence as tribal insurgencies struggle for independence. The resentment that some members of these ethnic groups feel is exacerbated by the inundation of their homelands by waves of illegal Muslim immigrants. In recent years an estimated 20 million Muslims have illegally crossed the border from Bangladesh.

Several dozen militant groups exist in these seven provinces. Some are said to be little better than brigands, but others are substantial armed insurgencies seeking national independence for tribes that predate Hinduism. Their methods include bombing government officials and the murderous “cleansing” of villages of the “wrong” ethnicity.

The violence is facilitated by the ease with which these terrorists have been able to withdraw across the border to bases in Bangladesh. The key fact about security fences is that they are highly effective in keeping barbarians out. The Great Wall of China gave excellent protection against raiders. That meant that generations of Chinese could lead secure and prosperous lives in the shadow of the wall. In England, meanwhile, life in the border counties was violent and impoverished.

Hadrian’s Wall was abandoned when the Romans left England, but in the late Middle Ages the island of Britain was again divided into a civilized south and a barbarian north.

Well into the 1600s, Scottish border tribes raided northern England, looting and kidnapping. In 1745 Scottish Highlanders launched an invasion of England aimed at putting a Stuart on the throne. England defended itself from the risk of further invasion by pacifying the Highland tribes.

The process eventually brought prosperity to the Scottish Lowlands, which blossomed into an Enlightenment that lit the world –but the price was horrific. England had purchased security by driving nine-tenths of the Highland Scots off their land, in the brutal “Highland clearances.”

Starving and bludgeoning an unruly population until its people die or emigrate are one method of pacifying a region. I prefer walls.

Obviously, the best solution for the Mideast would be for the Palestinians to create a government that would abandon the goal of conquering Israel, and that would quash the armed terrorists in its midst. Israel could negotiate peace with such a government.

Failing that, building a fence is the most civilized way in which nations can defend themselves from the threat faced, throughout history, by civilized people who share a border with armed attackers who lack an effective government.

Diana Muir is a historian, book reviewer and winner of the 2001-02 Massachusetts Book Award for Reflections in Bullough’s Pond: Economy and Ecosystem in New England (University Press of New England).

Fencing out the Barbarians

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