The Limits of Fences in Solving Tough Problems

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Do good fences make good neighbors? That idea is being tested in Iraq, and Israel, and in the United States. But it's important to recall the rest of Robert Frost's poem, as well.


The poet Robert Frost famously wrote the line: Good fences make good neighbors. But NPR's senior news analyst Daniel Schorr knows that the real meaning of Frost's poem is that good senses can be a bad thing.

DANIEL SCHORR: Building a wall may mean safety for some, but tragedy for many. I got my indoctrination into the horror of mortar and concrete on August 13, 1961, watching East Germany communist police close off East Berlin; first with barbed wire, and then with concrete. On the West Berlin side, people came up to the wall in tears as families were divided and East Berliners were cut off from their jobs in the west.

In one of my television reports, I quoted another line from that Robert Frost poem: Something there is that doesn't love a wall, that wants it down. Twenty-six years later, President Reagan spoke for unhappy Berliners, but also for the world. When he stood before the closed-off Brandenburg Gate and challenged soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.

President RONALD REAGAN: Mister Gorbachev, tear down this wall.

(Soundbite of cheering)

SCHORR: Two years later, the wall did come down. I have a piece of it in my office. This comes back to me because we seemed to be afflicted with another spell of wall-itis. Hoping that closing off problems will solve them. American soldiers have been engaged in a project of closing off the Sunni district of Adhamiyah. Israel has been working for years on a 436-mile fence to close off the Arab section of East Jerusalem. Pakistan is building a fence to close off Taliban roads into Afghanistan.

And unless United States miss out on the closing off festival, the U.S. has started work on what will eventually be a 700-mile fence along the Mexican border. Proponents of that wall speak of keeping out terrorists as well as job-seeking illegal immigrants. That's how it was established. But what can be established is that the projected fence has helped to stimulate a booming business in tunnel building and another booming business in forging identity documents.

As Robert Frost wrote: Something there is that doesn't love a wall. This is Daniel Schorr.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: This is NPR News.

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