Freedom forward

By Nathan Baumgartner
Opinion Contributer

Barriers surround us. They enclose us. They protect us.
Or so you think: Thanks to a generous contribution from Canisius alum James E. McGoldrick, a professor emeritus of Canisius College and long-time benefactor of the German program at Canisius who now lives in Frankfurt, Germany, an exhibition has been brought to the walkway in between Old Main and the Andrew L. Bouwhuis library. This exhibition, entitled “Freedom Forward,” was started by Kai Wiederhöfer to commemorate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The purpose of this exhibition, in the words of Wiederhöfer himself, is to show that “Walls are no solution for today’s major political problems.”
Many people currently believe that physical manifestation of walled borders began to decrease after the Berlin Wall, which certainly did happen in the immediate aftermath surrounding what is often termed the “Fall of Communism” throughout Eastern Europe. However, in an article written by Rick Noack with the Washington Post on 11 November 2014, “By 2011, more than 45 walls separated countries and territories.” If Mr. Wiederhöfer’s exhibition is any indication, walled borders exist throughout the world, from places like the West Bank to the border between Mexico and the United States, and many more examples in between.
If a border barrier exists to protect a group of people, then the mission from the other side becomes to “tear down that wall,” to cite an often-heard proclamation from Ronald Reagan toward Mikhail Gorbachev. As such, a border barrier basically attempts to curtail that problem from spreading into that respective state and therefore becomes an international issue under the competency of international law. A main impetus for the creation of a barrier on the border between Israel and the West Bank was to deter religious extremism in the form of large-scale attacks. However, its legality still remains up for debate with the adoption of UN Resolution ES-10/15 condemning its construction. As part of its adoption, 150 countries voted for its adoption, ten abstained, and six voted against, with the United States being a member of that group of six. Patterns into the European Union, the United States and elsewhere all indicate larger problems growing throughout the world, such as religious extremism and violence targeted towards a group of people: as part of the ongoing refugee crisis in the European Union, multiple walls have been constructed all the way from Bulgaria to Austria, from Spain to Hungary. On 25 October 2011, US News and World Report gathered opinion from former U.S. Commissioner of Customs and Border Protection W. Ralph Basham, who remarked, “There’s a fundamental misunderstanding about what a physical barrier—even the triple-layer fencing in San Diego–actually does or doesn’t do for the agency charged with building fencing and securing the border. All it really does is buy you time where a crosser could otherwise quickly escape or assimilate. None of the fencing is impenetrable. People will eventually dig under it or cut through it or go over it.”
But the matter of the issue remains as to why the United States condemned the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961, lauded its destruction in 1989, and then now creates a wall of its own on its border between the United States and Mexico beginning in 2006 all the while supporting the creation of walls throughout the rest of the world. Granted there may exist different perspectives and rationales as to why a border barrier would exist, vehemently speaking out against the construction of a border barrier and then creating one of your own is hypocrisy. Much like the way we viewed the force of Communism against Eastern Europe and the world as something bad, there currently exists a considerable amount of people viewing our involvement in the world in a much similar way with Caroline Modarressy-Tehrani of Huffington Post’s estimate of current wars involving the United States at seventy-four. With further writing in a 10 October 2014 article written by her, Modarressy-Tehrani further explains that “these are mostly unannounced and undeclared wars against enemies that have different aspirations, strategies and ideologies.” To put this further into perspective for the United States, Tehrani cites David Wood with Huffington Post, who states, “In this country we tend to look at foreign problems in a military way. So, send in the marines. Sell military goods. And a lot of the reason is because we don’t really get involved in crises very often until it becomes an overwhelming problem, and there’s almost nothing left to do except using military force. I think as hard as this is to realize, I think part of the problem is, we don’t back up and pay attention to situations as they’re developing.”
What happened in Berlin in 1989 could happen to the United States. It could happen to the United States, much like it could happen to Israel and much like it is happening in Northern Ireland, where historic “peace lines” are now beginning to come down, with Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness announcing plans to eliminate all peace lines. The only thing different in the perspective of the United States is how the construction of these walls is viewed: the construction of the Berlin Wall has historically been viewed by the United States as something impeding human rights between East Berlin and West Berlin, and often seen as a symbol of a much-larger divide between the “democratic” and “capitalist” West and the “totalitarian” and “socialist” East. But the United States continues to pride itself on the construction of its barrier with Mexico, recent polls conducted by the Pew Research Center showing a slight approval by US-Americans for further fencing movements along its border with Mexico.
A border barrier is not at all a sign of security. It does not safeguard citizens from ideals and people deemed to be a threat to a country, and therefore does not keep those supposed threats out. People escaped out of East Germany into West Berlin more often than one would think, with statistics estimating that at least five thousand East Germans escaped into West Berlin. A border barrier comes to represent much more than just protection, but also a struggle, which has been captured very well by Wiederhöfer. As a result, I encourage you to take a look along the walls between the library and Old Main whenever you get a chance. What you see may surprise you: flowers laid in front of barriers, sticks along a path showing where a barrier will be one day, and even a collapsed section of a wall bring multiple phases of a long struggle between security and openness, one which has lasted long beyond 1989.


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