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When In Doubt, Build A Wall

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I wasn't surprised to learn about the Bush administration's now-uncertain plans to build a wall between Sunnis and Shiites in Baghdad. After all, walls seem to be one of his favorite, all-purpose solutions. From the increased security around the presidential palace in Washington to the anti-immigrant electrified fortress at the border with Mexico, this president has proven himself a builder and a divider.

He builds walls around information, too. Consider the secret detention centers and extraordinary renditions, the PATRIOT Act and secret tribunals, the stonewalling anytime Cheney or Rove are asked to account for their actions, the attempts to re-classify mounds of government documents and keep everything they do secret.

When President Bush spots a problem, he cordons it off. I imagine his task force to research what can be done in the case of troubled individuals like Cho Sueng-Hui will lead to much the same conclusion. Like Iraq, we couldn't actually have done anything to prevent the violence. We can only preempt it. With a wall. Maybe we'll call it an institution.

Now I could be wrong, but I thought society was moving in the direction of tearing down walls, not building them. Divisions between cultures. Inequalities between races. Lines between nations. Everywhere from the internet to the European Union to bisexuality on college campuses, it seems to me that walls are tumbling down.

Perhaps Bush's desperate grabs for political bricks and mortar are signs of regressive nostalgia. Ah, the good old days of the Berlin wall. When the enemy was clear and the defense budget rationales were clearer. Today Bush is having trouble getting his war supplemental through Congress. Ronnie didn't have these problems.

When the Great Wall of China was finally finished in the 16th Century -- the construction of which claimed over 3,000 lives -- it did little to prevent the Ming Dynasty from keeping out the Manchus, who nonetheless overthrew the government. Nor was the Berlin Wall particularly useful. In addition to being the physical embodiment of Cold War anxieties and tensions, it fractured a people who were once united, leaving such deep rifts that, in 2004, 25% of West Germans and 12% of East Germans still wished the wall existed. Have we ever found that walling off our problems is a good solution?

What about instead ... oh, I don't know ... maybe solving our problems in the first place. Not locking up the mentally ill but providing counseling and community bonds. Not isolating and threatening Iran but diplomacy and mutual aid. Not raiding and deporting immigrants but creating an economy that works for everyone. Not creating us-versus-them hierarchies of rights and privileges but pursuing justice and fairness for everyone thus chipping away at the borders and walls in our hearts, our minds and our politics.

Those who are younger than I am and don't remember the fall of the Berlin Wall might find these sentiments hopelessly romantic. But the day the wall fell, the sun started to rise on a new era of connectivity and community, upending the dank mold of fear and resentment the wall had sheltered. Walls everywhere that once seemed fixed became fictions. The possibility of connectivity across divides, across the whole world, was opened up. We see that connectivity blossoming today, watching movies from Bangladesh on YouTube and adopting new environmental innovations from Singapore.

Good fences have never made good policy, just as they've never made good neighbors. Bush's embrace of wall building and secrecy reminds me of totalitarian feudal lords. But feudalism failed too, didn't it? Now that Nouri al-Maliki has poked a hole in Bush's Baghdad wall plans, can we start building some bridges instead?

Sally Kohn is director of the New York-based Movement Vision Project, working with grassroots organizations across the United States to advance our shared values of family, community and humanity. She has interviewed progressive leaders across the country on their vision for the future.