From China to Berlin, Fences Have Failed to Exclude or Contain

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"Something there is that doesn't love a wall," wrote Robert Frost in "Mending Wall." The poem is in part about being driven nuts by a neighbor who ceaselessly repeats "Good fences make good neighbors."

As part of his own version of a good neighbor policy, President Bush signed into law yesterday the "Secure Fence Act of 2006." It authorizes construction of 700 miles of new walls along parts of the 1,951-mile-long border from San Ysidro, Calif., to Brownsville, Tex. The Secure Fence Act does not include funding for the project, the cost of which is estimated to be at least $6 billion.

Yet humans quite clearly do love walls.

Starting 2,200 years ago, Chinese dynasties built walls to keep the Mongols at bay. The most famous of these is the Great Wall, which is twice as long as the U.S.-Mexico border. It did not prevent the Manchu from conquering China in 1644.

The Romans built Hadrian's Wall across 74 miles of what is now northern England to keep the tribes from Scotland in their place. This did not prevent the Romans from eventually abandoning this outpost of empire.

The Berlin Wall was a shock because it was intended to keep people in . To this day, hefting chunks of it can feel spooky. Maybe it's all in the imagination, but those shards of pebble and concrete still seem to give off a palpable chill of evil.

However, history tells us that walls usually work the other way.

After World War I, the French built the Maginot Line to slow down the Germans. The Germans invested in high mobility. When they moved, they drove and flew around and over this wall. They were well into France in five days.

During World War II, to defeat an Allied invasion, the Nazis built the Atlantic Wall along the west coast of Europe from the French-Spanish border to Norway. It included 6 million mines in northern France, concrete pillboxes, machine guns, antitank guns, light artillery and underwater obstacles. Devotees of "Saving Private Ryan" know how that movie ends....

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