Trump declares national emergency to build wall

The long and the short of it: Ancient and modern examples of walls to protect or divide.

What is it about walls? President Donald Trump has declared a national emergency in order to fund a wall along the US-Mexico border. Now he faces several challenges in the courts.

It will take roughly 10,000 builders, cost $8 billion, and use three million tons of steel, according to one estimate. It will stretch for 1,000 miles through national parks, deserts and border towns.

On Friday, President Donald Trump declared a national emergency in order to access military funding for his most famous election promise: a wall between the US and Mexico. “We have an invasion of drugs and criminals coming into our country,” he said, although the number of illegal border crossings has fallen since the early 2000s.

The move came after Democrats in Congress refused to approve the funding, leading to the longest government shutdown in US history.

Trump’s plan — and its popularity among his supporters — has shocked liberal commentators ever since he first floated the idea in 2015.

But societies have been building walls since the dawn of civilisation; 4,000 years ago, the ancient Sumerians built a 100-mile wall to keep out an invading tribe known as the Amorites. The real question is: what happens once walls have been built?

In Sumer, the Amorites simply walked around it. Three millennia later in 1213, the armies of Genghis Khan breached the Great Wall of China and invaded Beijing. It was breached again in 1215, then in 1550, and again in 1644.

In modern times, the West Bank barrier has been credited with reducing terrorism by the Israeli government which built it. But the Palestinians on the other side describe it as an “apartheid wall” which is blocking potential peace talks.

In the past Trump has described his wall as “beautiful”. However, several lawsuits have already been filed over his decision to declare a national emergency to fund it.

What is it about walls that has the power to stir such passions?

And have walls generally made the world a better or a worse place?

Off the wall

Much worse, say some. It is no accident that so many positive images are about “breaking boundaries” and “building bridges”. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 was one of the most powerful symbols of the 20th century precisely because it was about the end of division and inequality. All barriers, psychological or physical, are ultimately damaging. Imagine how brilliant a world without walls would be.

Save us from such nonsense, say others. The American poet Robert Frost was right: “good fences make good neighbours”. In fact the wall is one of the greatest inventions of humanity. Walls create safe spaces where we can be truly human. In Belfast, “peace walls” were built during the Troubles to separate warring Protestant and Catholic communities. Now they have become tourist attractions, bearing the signatures of everyone from Bill Clinton to the Dalai Lama.

You Decide

  1. If you had to decide: are you a pro-wall person or an anti-wall person?
  2. Do you think President Donald Trump is right to plan his great wall of Mexico?


  1. Make a list of what you consider to be humanity’s top 10 inventions in descending order of importance.
  2. Choose a historical wall and produce a fact file which explains its history. Why was it built? How long did it take? Did it achieve its aims?

Some People Say...

“It is in the nature of walls that they should fall.”

Jeanette Winterson

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Trump’s description of an “impenetrable” concrete wall has shifted. It now means adding slatted steel “barriers” to the 650 miles of fencing which already exists. The $8 billion funding includes $1.4 billion agreed with Congress; $3.5 billion from the US Defense Department’s military budget, thanks to the national emergency; $2.5 billion from the Defense Department’s drug budget, and around $600 million from the Treasury Department.
What do we not know?
Whether the wall would be successful at reducing illegal immigration. Studies have found that the “intense borders” which already exist in the US (including fencing and armed guards) can sometimes have the opposite effect. While immigrants once entered the US to work temporarily, now they do not make the return trip home.

Word Watch

One estimate
By Ed Zarenski, a construction expert who gave his calculations to The Washington Post in January.
1,000 miles
The actual border is 1,954 miles, but the barrier would be around 1,000 miles long thanks to “natural barriers” like rivers and mountains.
National emergency
An extreme situation which gives a government powers it would not normally have.
Government shutdown
The shutdown of various government agencies due to a lack of funding. The latest shutdown lasted 35 days.
Ancient Sumerians
Sumer is the world’s oldest known civilisation, now part of southern Iraq.
Great Wall of China
This was built in various stages between the third century BC and 1644, when the Ming dynasty came to an end. It is one of the seven wonders of the world.
West Bank barrier
Begun in 2002 during a time of increased terrorism in the region. The barrier is still under construction.
Berlin Wall
Built to separate capitalist West Germany from communist East Germany in 1961. It literally split the capital city in two.
The Troubles
A period of armed conflict in Northern Ireland between 1968 and 1998.

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