From job loss to financial anxieties, border walls are how politicians redirect our fears

Border walls provide "scapegoating at the societal level," psychologists say

By Jessica Wapner
Published November 8, 2020 2:00PM (EST)
Indian Border Security Force (BSF) personnel keep a vigil near India-Bangladesh fencing border during a patrol ahead of India's 70th Republic Day celebration at Lankamura village, on the outskirts of Agartala, the capital of northeastern state of Tripura on January 24, 2019. (ARINDAM DEY/AFP via Getty Images)
Indian Border Security Force (BSF) personnel keep a vigil near India-Bangladesh fencing border during a patrol ahead of India's 70th Republic Day celebration at Lankamura village, on the outskirts of Agartala, the capital of northeastern state of Tripura on January 24, 2019. (ARINDAM DEY/AFP via Getty Images)

Excerpt from "Wall Disease: The Psychological Toll of Living Up Against a Border" © 2020 by Jessica Wapner. Reprinted with permission of The Experiment Publishing. Available everywhere books are sold.

Felani Khatun and her father arrived at the fence separating India from Bangladesh on January 7, 2011, at about eight thirty in the morning. They'd been traveling all night with the help of a smuggler and had finally reached the Anantapur border in the Cooch Behar district of northern India. Felani, fifteen, was the Indian-born daughter of migrant workers from Bangladesh, and she and her father were returning to their homeland so she could be married. They had wanted to arrive when it was still dark out and now had to risk climbing the fence in the light of day. The young girl stood out against the gray sky in her dress of red and royal blue. A ladder propped up against the fence was all that separated the father and daughter from their destination. Felani's father climbed over without a problem. But her dress caught on the barbs, and when she screamed for help a member of India's Border Security Force shot her in the chest. 

Felani's body remained on the fence for the next five hours. One leg lay horizontally across the top of the fence and the other was slung over the side, dangling into India. The top half of her body hung upside down, her ponytail still tidy, her necklace fallen around her chin, a heart-shaped charm hovering by her forehead. Border officers stood a few feet away. People nearby said they heard her begging for water while she died. Eventually the border patrol tied her ankles and wrists onto a bamboo pole and carried her body away. The officer who allegedly shot her was acquitted twice.

The border fence between India and Bangladesh is known as the bloodiest in the world. Between 2000 and 2010, the Border Security Force killed nearly one thousand people, mostly Bangladeshis, according to Human Rights Watch. Some of the victims were not even trying to cross over the fence. This border is far from the only dangerous one worldwide. The terrorist group Boko Haram unleashed its nightmare of abduction, killing, and conscription near the border of Chad and Niger. Land mines dot the demilitarized zone between North Korea and South Korea, and anyone who tries to cross the border may be shot. Mortal danger, reads a sign on the separation barrier between Israel and the Palestinian territories. Any person who passes or damages this fence endangers his life.

The wall itself may not always be particularly frightening; the bollards separating Brownsville from Matamoros may stop migrants but they won't tear your flesh apart. From eye level, they look a little like a fence surrounding a park for giants. Yet fear is now embedded into our collective conception of border walls. All of these structures are connected to a mindset that seeks to control us by the fear of what will happen if we attempt to breach them: death, prison, tear gas, or the command to return to a homeland drenched in violence, corruption, and deprivation.

Geographers sometimes refer to the proliferation of border walls across the world as spatial apartheid. Barriers are used to segregate populations that are deemed to be threatening, whether out of genuine concern or because instilling that belief helps ensure, say, reelection. Regardless of the underlying motive for a border wall, the structures themselves are one component — though a visible and imposing one — of a power dynamic. "The wall really symbolizes all of the enforcement that happens around it," says Reece Jones, professor of geography at the University of Hawai'i at Mānoa. The physical wall represents the system that has decided who's in and who's out, and what happens to those who try to change that equation.

Eyal Weizman, who founded Forensic Architecture, the research team that investigated the herbicide spraying at the Gaza Strip, uses starker terms. "What we are seeing is just the monster's tail," he says, "and there is something terrifyingly scary about seeing the tail of a beast whose full contours and capacity and disposition we do not yet know." Weizman was speaking not about the wall between Israel and the Gaza Strip specifically but about all border walls. Around the world, the consequences of long-term stress caused by the fear and insecurity stemming from border structures are slowly making themselves known. "The fear that walls trigger is what we should fear," says geographer É́lisabeth Vallet.

For those who live and work near border walls, fear is often part of routine life. The fence between India and Bangladesh cuts through miles of rice paddies tended to by farmers daily. "It's frightening if you're just trying to go about your life, working in your rice paddy, and you have to worry about bullets flying past," says Jones, who wrote about this and other borders in his book "Border Walls: Security and the War on Terror in the United States, India, and Israel." Many people have family on the other side, but visiting them means bribing border guards. Halfway across the short bridge from Matamoros into Brownsville, armed guards check passports while standing near a stack of riot gear. In Georgia, shepherds who've strayed too close to the border have been imprisoned in Tskhinvali, South Ossetia, their families left with no idea of when their husband, father, brother, or son might return home. In many places, the military presence engenders a sense of being watched and potentially punished for the slightest transgression.

Somewhat harder to see is the fear triggered in people whose government built the wall ostensibly to keep them safe. In August 1962, Peter Fechter, an eighteen-year-old bricklayer living on the East German side of the Berlin Wall, which had been built a year earlier, tried to leave by climbing over and dropping into West Berlin. The friend with whom he'd cooked up the plan succeeded, but East German border guards shot Fechter in his right hip. He fell onto the East German side of the wall—where he lived—and died within an hour. East Germans had been told that the purpose of the Berlin Wall was to keep out Western fascists. But the truth was that the wall was made to keep East Germans in; that was increasingly clear. Those on the communist side of the wall lived in fear of the very authorities who praised their system as superior.

The current situation in the United States is not comparable. Citizens of El Paso don't worry that they may not come home if they walk into Mexico for the afternoon. But subtle cues still provoke mild fear. Vallet recounts conversations she had with immigrants in the Rio Grande Valley who told her that people don't talk to them anymore. "Everyone is shying away from them, not touching them, not looking at them," she recalls their telling her. It was as if the border wall and its accompanying rhetoric had made people treat immigrants like they had cooties, lest they be seen treating the enemy kindly. Locals urged her not to speed, to avoid drawing the attention of the police, and told her where she could and could not go. "It felt like a dystopian atmosphere," she says. "You feel under surveillance." The US-Mexico border is dotted with towers that enable Border Patrol to watch for activity in the river and at its Mexican shores, but they also provide a handy view of neighborhoods on the US side. And undocumented workers worry about being stopped on the highway, or anywhere for that matter.

Israel provides another example of a border wall that influences the minds of those it's supposed to protect. Construction of the security wall between Israel and the Palestinian territories began in 2002 as a response to the suicide bombings during the second Intifada — 138 such attacks occurred between October 2000 and July 2005. (This history is long, complicated, and beyond the scope of this article.) The structure worked: These terrorist acts decreased in frequency, leaving Israelis to live without the constant fear of a deadly bomb exploding every time they went to a shopping mall or café. But the same people now protected by the wall must also live with how it affects those on the other side: cutting croplands off from their owners, transecting villages, and making movement from one area to another complicated or even impossible. "The wall creates a clear reminder that the two people are still in conflict," says Eli Somer, "and reminds us of the difficulties the other side incurs as a result of the existence of this wall." Israel also has a fence along its 150-mile border with Egypt—in order to prevent drug and weapons smuggling and illegal immigration—and a fence at the border with Jordan has been started, with plans for additional structures at the borders with Syria. "When this happens, Israel will effectively turn into an armed fortress sealing itself off from its surroundings," says the psychology professor Gilad Hirschberger. Although this situation provides a sense of psychological and physical security, he says, "it also cultivates paranoia, distrust, and perpetual existential fear."

For some people, the rhetoric surrounding the border wall has provided a useful way to redirect other fears, such as anxieties about job loss and financial insecurity. It's scapegoating at the societal level, says Daniel Sullivan, a social psychologist at the University of Arizona. Blaming groups that we aren't part of—minority groups, political parties, a particular demographic, outsiders—for uncertainties or ambiguities in our lives, says Sullivan, helps us handle those uncertainties and ambiguities.

Sullivan runs the Cultural-Existential Psychology Laboratory, where researchers conduct experiments to understand how people cope with suffering, the threat of death, and other challenging life events. In one typical study, they asked a group of adults to think about large problems, such as climate change or the 2008 recession, and to provide opinions on who could be blamed for these issues. Then, they asked them to consider the roles of specific participants, such as a particular country's contribution to climate change or a senator who may have contributed to the 2008 recession. In this case, the targets weren't entirely blameless to begin with, and the volunteers were given a chance to vent about these actors. Providing this opportunity exacerbated the scapegoating. "Basically, what we see is that if people have been threatened, they tend to blame these targets even more," says Sullivan. "People often feel, at least temporarily, a greater sense of control when they do this."

Those in power know this, says Sullivan. First comes the problem—unemployment, global warming, coronavirus. Then comes the fear-generating rhetoric—for example, calling undocumented immigrants "thugs" and "animals" that are invading the country. The more convinced we are to blame these groups, the less likely we are to consider more nuanced truths about underlying causes, allowing those in power to avoid culpability. Other times, Sullivan points out, politicians may completely manufacture a threat just to create an enemy, giving those in power an opportunity to look like heroes for solving a problem that never existed to begin with. "Politicians are very aware of the fact that the heightened sense of control comes from both the enemy figure and the anxiety," he says.

Excerpt from "Wall Disease: The Psychological Toll of Living Up Against a Border" © 2020 by Jessica Wapner. Reprinted with permission of The Experiment Publishing. Available everywhere books are sold.

Jessica Wapner

Jessica Wapner is a journalist and former science editor at Newsweek whose work has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, Wired, Medium, Discover, Popular Science, Self, Scientific American, New York magazine, The Atlantic, and elsewhere. Her first book, "The Philadelphia Chromosome," was named a top ten nonfiction book by The Wall Street Journal. She lives in Brooklyn.

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