Europe, History, Politics, Security

Why Walls Work

When Constantinople finally buckled and fell in the spring of 1453, it was before the awesome power of the Ottoman siege cannons. A Venetian surgeon, Nicolo Barbaro described the barrage during the desperate final days, 

When it fired the explosion made all the walls of the city shake, and all the ground inside, and even the ships in the harbor felt the vibrations of it…No greater cannon than this one was ever seen in the whole pagan world, and it was this that broke down such a great deal of the city walls.

The siege cannons were created by a Hungarian engineer named Orban. He first offered his services to Constantine XI, but the nearly insolvent Emperor couldn’t afford his retainer. He subsequently sought out the young Sultan Mehmet II who immediately understood their potential use in his planned attack on the seat of the dying Byzantine Empire.

The Cannon of Mehmed II

The fall of Constantinople was the dramatic final chapter of the Middle Ages. Powerful cannons radically changed the value of walled cities, and thus the nature of international security. The value of walls continued to decline over subsequent centuries as increasingly potent weapons and transportation technologies made walls almost militarily irrelevant. By the late-20th century, a network of fixed fortifications such as the Maginot Line was considered a strategic punch line.

Why Walls Are Back

However, after a half-millennia of increasing obsolescence, it seems that walls have staged a comeback. The U.S. government is shuttered today due to a dispute over a southern border barrier. Walls are once again major public policy issues not because of the military threat from a rising China or a revivified Russia, but due to the tsunami of migration flowing from the poorly governed, demographically ballooning areas of Latin America, the Middle East, and Africa. 21st-century walls are not designed to defeat the strong but resist the weak.

Walls are potent political issues today because citizens of afflicted nations are suffering real costs from illegal mass migration. These range from the concrete pains of increased crime and terrorism, to abstract matters like diminished social trust. Though citizens protest, illegal migration continues because a triad of Machiavellian politicians, profit-maximizing corporations, and remittance-receiving states benefit immensely from the current situation. To these actors the system isn’t broken, it has never been better.

Legal migration is a productive activity that pairs skills with opportunities and creates real economic and social value. Illegal migration, on the other hand, is simple territorial competition. Human beings are territorial animals, and disputes over who gets to live where have animated our entire history. In centuries past, such competitions, (for example between Turks and Byzantine Greeks in the 15th century), hinged on who was the strongest. Mehmet’s Ottomans had better technology and were more disciplined, numerous, and organized than the Byzantines. Thus, they conquered and lived in the territory of Anatolia. In the 1450s might didn’t make right, it just made.

To some today, the use of might is always wrong. Beyond those who benefit commercially and politically from illegal migration, there is a set of more pernicious actors: the revanchists of post-modernism. They subscribe to a school of thought that holds that territorial competitions should be arbitrated in favor of whoever is weakest and most aggrieved. For example, in the current territorial competition of Pakistanis trying to illegally move into Germany, the Germans are the “structurally privileged” party and so must now submit.

The practitioners of this ideology are victim supremacists. They hold that the weak of today are that way because of the past actions of the strong, specifically due to actions committed during the historical period of European intercontinental colonialism. By this line of reasoning, modern Germans must make territorial concessions inside their own countries due to the weakness past British inflicted upon past Pakistanis.

This ideology is deeply incorrect both logically and morally.

How can a woman who was born in 1985 in Cologne be considered morally responsible for the actions of an Englishman in 1915 Lahore? If she can be held to account, it begs the question how far historical complicity should reach? Fifty years? Five hundred? Five thousand? Human history is a tale of unceasing cruelty and massacre, and every group in existence today has at some point committed wicked acts of chauvinistic violence.

Is a Zulu South African morally responsible for the displacement and marginalization of the Bushmen that accompanied the Bantu Expansion? Is a Chicano-American living in Los Angeles morally responsible for the cruelties of the Aztec Empire? How should a modern Chinese repent for the Tang Dynasty’s slaughter of 1/6th of humanity during the An Lushan Rebellion?

It is this type of soft-headed, historically ignorant thinking that has precipitated the current crisis, and brought about this new debate over walls, nations, and territory.

Why Walls Work

The plain truth is that walls are effective. They must, of course, be paired with interior enforcement, labor verification, and law enforcement strategies. But the current drive for walls pivots upon the fact that once erected they are the one migration measure that is relatively immune to political oscillations. If a limited-migration administration begins a program of rigorous border enforcement, a subsequent open-borders administration can simply halt it through executive direction. Walls, however, once in place generally stand, and have proved remarkably effective in the 21st century.

In Hungary, the Fidesz government erected hundreds of miles of fencing in the summer of 2015 and watched illegal crossings plummet. The government announced an expansion to this wall last spring, and through physical barriers, the Hungarians seem to have solved their illegal migration problem. Israel has perhaps the most effective border security program in the world. A network of fences and sensors along their southern border is so effective that last year they reported zero illegal crossings. Those who argue that border walls are not effective are either ignorant of these facts or dishonest. In the 21st century, walls are an instrumental component of a sane, humane, legal migration program.

Why Migration Limitations Are Prudent

The velocity and scale of modern migration patterns are truly staggering. And allowing it to take place lawlessly is a geo-strategic blunder. The U.N. estimates that there are 258 million migrants in the world today. Last year one-third of the births in England were to foreign-born mothers. A poll by Gallup revealed that nearly 700 million people globally have a desire to migrate permanently. The pace of migration has increased so sharply because technology has drastically changed the ease of travel.

In the 1830’s migrating from Dublin to Philadelphia entailed a month-long journey on a disease-ridden vessel. 19th-century death rates on trans-oceanic journeys ranged as high as 30%. Today that same journey is a $500, 8-hour flight.

Assimilation is also significantly more difficult today. Upon arriving in 1830s Philadelphia a past migrant’s only ties to their former homelands were unreliable mail and courier networks. Past migrants had little choice but get to know their new neighbors and as Emerson said, “construct a new race, a new religion, a new literature”. Today, WhatsApp, FaceTime, and regular low-cost flights to the old-country make this much less likely. Add on top of these technologies a “salad-bowl” public ethos of ethnic separation and you drastically increase the probability of factionalism and violence.

In the 1450s a perceptive Hungarian named Orban foresaw that cannons would forever change the nature of walls, war, and politics. In a historical dal segno, today it is the Hungarian leader Victor Orban who understands perhaps better than any other Western leader the relationship between walls, war, and politics. He recently remarked that “A mass migration is never peaceful. When large masses of people set out in search of a new home, conflicts inevitably ensue, because others have already settled the place they want to settle. And the earlier settlers will want to defend their home, their culture, and their way of life.” As fierce populist reactions cascade across the Western world, we would be well served to consider this warning.


George is a technology executive and writer living in New York City. He is currently finishing his first novel, which follows an American infantryman through a career of deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. George Gallatin is a pseudonym. Given the current climate surrounding political expression his name is being withheld.

Filed under: Europe, History, Politics, Security


George is a technology executive and writer living in New York City. He is currently finishing his first novel, which follows an American infantryman through a career of deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. George Gallatin is a pseudonym. Given the current climate surrounding political expression his name is being withheld.


  1. Alexei says

    It’s rare to read the truth about this issue stated so bluntly.
    Yes, mass immigration benefits the big capitalists of the receiving countries, who get cheap labor (that’s why the establishment Republican Party in the US is historically the greatest enabler of it).
    Yes, it benefits certain unscrupulous politicians (that’s why the Left has turned from opposing mass immigration, as it used to do till the 1970s, to championing it now).
    Yes, it’s the middle and working classes of the receiving countries that end up with the short end of the deal.
    And yes, walls are effective at stopping it.

    All of this is usually buried in economics papers like this:

    I’m astonished that generalist outlets are starting to report it.

  2. I find it interesting that the article you link to about why walls work ends with the following statement which to me says ‘Nope’.

    In the end, the wall would be very expensive, a larger project than the walls of all three countries in this analysis combined. In addition, if the government were to enact all of these suggestions to increase the effectiveness of the wall, the price would increase to an exorbitant level. The potential loss of life due to more dangerous migration routes must also not be ignored, and the United States must decide whether this loss of life is worth a reduction in illegal immigration. Perhaps the government should try legislative solutions before building the wall, as this would be far less costly and would not result in an increase in mortality. Immigration reform—whether aimed at making work in the United States less desirable to potential immigrants, or aimed at making work in the United States easier—would prove to be a far more levelheaded first measure than the construction of a continent-wide wall.

    • I can’t help but thoroughly agree with you, Doug. A border wall of the proposed size is prohibitively expensive. Surely revamping visa legislation and punishing employers who employ illegal immigrants would be a much better place to start, although I don’t think just those two actions would suffice.

      • Agreed. Not just expensive, though. It is also irelevant except for the political expediency it offers within a certain political demographic. The reality on the ground is that a wall is an expensive solution, that might not work as advertized, intended fix a problem that has been steadily going away on its own for more than a decade. Indeed, that problem could be made to go away even faster with one simple trick that would end up saving us money instead of costing us money – ending the drug-war.

    • Israel has 1,004 km of border wall with a population of 8.5m, so 8,500 people per km of wall. Hungary has 523km of border wall with a population of 9.8m, so 18,700 people per km of wall. The US-Mexico border is 3,201km long and the US has a population of 325.7m, which would be 101,800 people per km of wall. Given Americans are also, on average, richer than Israelis and Hungarians, the proposed border is, in fact, “smaller” with respect to population and GDP than either the Israeli or Hungarian cases.

      • “…the US has a population of 325.7m, which would be 101,800 people per km of wall.”

        Yes, but a drone fleet will likely be much less expensive. A drone fleet will also not interfere with animal movement the way a physical wall will.

  3. augustine says

    Only hinted at in this article is the mystery of why the same progressive Westerners who push for unqualified and unquantified immigration are eager to attack Western mores (especially Christianity and whites) yet seem to be inured to or ignorant of the horrors of Islam and other “authentic” cultures. Apparently the tenets of traditional Christian marriage, e.g., reflect only the oppressive patriarchy but female genital mutilation and honor killings by supremacist Muslims in the West must not be criticized. Today it is bigoted and crass to even mention such realities.

    This odd discrepancy can be explained by the fact that progressives tend to see any group that works against traditional Western values as an ally, no matter how foreign or hostile the group is in reality. Their support for unprincipled immigration is one side of a coin; the other side is a desire to destroy Western traditions that is aided by such immigration. In ideology and numbers, progressives are politically too weak to conquer their enemies outright; attaching themselves to the cause of immigrants who can be manipulated by favorable policies and a robust cultural welcome mat makes sense.

    • You did not mention that Crist taught that we should care for the poor and dispossessed.

      • Jeff York says

        Alan, I don’t see what that has to do with Augustine’s comment. I’m presently reading the Bible cover-to-cover for the fifth time in my life. *All* of the Bible’s admonitions to perform charitable acts are directed to individuals.

        I served in seven third-world dystopias, four of them Islamic visions of what can only be described as Hell on Earth, I kid you not. The West is collectively being destroyed with good intentions. According to one model, the population of Africa is projected to increase from 1.3-billion today to 4-billion by 2100. If Europe and America were to each take 5%, 200-million each, they would effectively be destroyed within thirty years, tops, and Africa wouldn’t even notice that they were missing.

        The Japanese, in particular, understand something about homogeneity, demographics, immigration and survival that the West does not.

    • mg_94536 says

      Your sentence betrays your bigotry:

      >> reflect only the oppressive patriarchy but female genital mutilation and honor killings by supremacist Muslims in the West must not be criticized

      Female genital mutilation is not a particularly widespread Islamic practice. Like most “religious” practices, such as Christmas celebrations during winter, it arose as a mix of indigenous practices in East Africa that were subsequently “Islamicized” to give the practice greater legitimacy. It is also seen in East African Christian communities, but not seen in South Asia, Central Asia, or Levantine Islamic societies.

      It’s fine to criticize the practice, as it is inhumane an alien to us, but to ascribe it as “Muslim” practice does betray an animus against Muslims, which seems to have replaced the animus against Jews, in the West. Both are regrettable.

      • Peter Hindrup says

        Female mutilation, but not circumcision mutilation? I really wonder why.

        Why not just ban ALL child mutilation?

      • augustine says

        “You did not mention that Crist taught that we should care for the poor and dispossessed.”

        This is arguably the highest social good for a Christian. But it is a very generalized statement the way you have written it, open to broad interpretation and even abuse. It sounds like an admonition from the current pope.

        Christ never said that Israel should welcome, nay encourage, the Persians or the Egyptians in limitless numbers to join in their nation and everything would just work out. How many times do the words “tribe” and “tribes” appear in the Bible? (Jeff?). Being open to good faith relations with any kind of “other” tribe or person is not at all related to the modern notion of open borders. The latter is an impersonal scheme with a number of mostly wicked political and economic motivations.

        I will go out on a limb and suggest that Christ preached in a universal _spiritual_ way but not “universally” in terms of politics or other worldly domains. Such matters were of no concern to him for he was focused on the heart, the soul of every man, woman and child. Our primary focus should always be on matters of the heart, through Christ, which will bring us the connection to God and to others we so desperately need. Meanwhile we will differ in our socio-political diversity.

        If we ever do manage to turn our dark hearts and subjugate our egos someday it will be a very different world. We will have moved this discussion from an intellectual one to one of compassion and thoughtful action.

      • tfcooper says

        According to Wikipedia, a large majority of females in Indonesia have undergone FGM. Here is a quote from the article:

        “In 2013, the Indonesian Ulema Council ruled that it favors FGM, stating that although it is not mandatory, it is still ‘morally recommended’.”

        • augustine says

          In retrospect my example of FGM to disparage Islam was not the best choice. It turned out to be a distraction apparently, rather than a compelling reason (among many) to consider the perils of allowing the settlement of Muslims in areas they have not yet conquered.

  4. Walls work in certain instances. For example, in Israel and Hungary, walls work great because their illegal immigrants travel by land. In the U.S., between 30-50% of illegal immigrants simply overstay their visa, and some percentage fly and boat here. The U.S./Mexico border is massive. I remain unconvinced that a comparison to Hungary or Israel’s borders is appropriate, and further remain unconvinced that a border (that I, the taxpayer would have to pay for) is the best option for addressing our illegal immigrant problem.

  5. Israel’s border fence is a meaningless comparison. The physical size is enough to laugh the it away. The US also has a small piece of it’s border with fences and sensors and we probably report zero illegal crossings at those points too. That says nothing about the overall regulation of people into the country. If you want to look at a border wall, how about their northern one meant to regulate Palestinian movement. There have been far fewer, and recently no, bombings, which is a success of sorts. But if you are interested in human beings with ill intentions making it across, then all the stabbings in 2017 go to show that the wall has fallen short.

    Hungary’s fences are an equally meaningless comparison. The refugees were never headed to Hungary in the first place. Since Hungary built those fences the refugees just go around, through Greece. To make a meaningful comparison you would have to pick a country people are actually trying to end up in. Perhaps you could look at somewhere like the UK, which happens to have an enormous physical barrier called the English Channel, but of course you did not pick that one because it only goes to prove that even a 20 mile wide physical barrier fails to keep people out.

    I think to actually find a meaningful comparison you would have to look somewhere like China and their system for restricting people’s movement from the countryside to the city. My understanding is that it still does not work, and it relies on government registration which Americans would be scared of. But it does actually address the real issue which is job availability for the people you want to regulate. But the justifications for limiting immigration are generally after thoughts anyways.

    The wall is a distraction. Discussions of the effectiveness of a wall are pointless. The sole purpose of the wall is to placate people who fear their position in American society while doing nothing to actually help them. Land (and sea) migrations will cease when the jobs are eliminated by mechanization, but then the people who competed with illegal immigrants for jobs will be in the exact same position. In the end though, the rules of the American dream dictate that capitalism conquers all, and capitalists have equal quantities of shits to give for poor people whether they are citizens of the US or foreign.

    • Peter says

      “Since Hungary built those fences the refugees just go around, through Greece. ”

      Pam: Nobody with a minimum knowledge of geography would attempt to write an “alternative fact” like this. Since Hungary and Austria closed the borders, the greatly reduced immigrant flow turned mainly to the more dangerous route from Libya to Italy.

  6. Nicholas Conrad says

    Frankly surprised Quillette would stoop to publish such psudo-intellectual drivel. For one, anyone old enough to remember the fall of the Soviet Union should simultaneously understand the horrors of ‘well enforced’ border walls, and their ultimate futility. 2nd, any argument that can only pass scrutiny against the flimsiest of Victimhood fetishists strawmen needn’t bother.

    • Bill Haywood says

      You must be new here Nick, pseudo-intellectual drivel is the specialization.

    • Bartek says

      Your argument is pretty irrelevant. First, the walls during Communist Era served entirely different purpose than those described in the article – they were designed to keep people in. Once someone managed to successfully cross the wall (i.e., without being shot in the back by his own countrymen) then he was actually WELCOME on the other side. Second, the fall of Communist Block has almost nothing to do with the enforcements of the borders. The walls were quite effective, the communism failed for systemic reasons.

  7. Bill Haywood says

    This is a howler:
    “Assimilation is also significantly more difficult today. Upon arriving in 1830s Philadelphia a past migrant’s only ties to their former homelands were unreliable mail and courier networks. Past migrants had little choice but get to know their new neighbors”

    Immigrants were reviled in the 19th Century for supposedly refusing to assimilate. They lived in Italian, Irish, German, etc. neighborhoods where they read their own language press, spoke their first language, and listened to immigrant priests. Today, immigrant parents may still speak their first language, but their kids know English. That’s pretty much like the 1800s — later generations will not be so frighteningly different to poor George, so he should chill out.

  8. Ethan says

    You admitted that all it takes is a $500 plane ride. Most illegal immigrants come via airports, cars, and overstayed travel and visas. I don’t have the facts, but perhaps someone can enlighten us. Not a very good article, uncommon for Qillette.

    • But they have already passed some scrutiny to enter. Also, this is something of a specious argument, as different aspects of a problem often require different responses.

  9. Peter says

    Deported criminals have reentered US illegally via land many times. They could not fly in.

    An article in the leading Swiss newspaper shows the enormous cost Germany is paying for unchecked immigration in 2015/16 and why this is a taboo for German mainstream media:
    Independent research by a Swiss institute in one German province shows also a significant rise in crime due to immigration:
    Google Translate will do a good job of translating these in English.

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  12. dark_wing_duck says

    I think addressing the strongest possible arguments for open (or more open) borders would make this defense of border walls more effective.

    You speak of progressives who favor illegal immigration because they believe it somehow serves as a karmic balance for colonization, genocide, and other policies carried out by a number of western nations in the past. I agree that arguments of this sort are mistaken or even incoherent. However, I think by focusing on those points, you are ignoring much stronger arguments made by other groups.

    From a philosophical standpoint, illegal immigration generally results in a massive utility gain. The people fleeing these broken countries are escaping a host of evils – war, violence, persecution, starvation, unemployment etc. Just being able to walk the streets without the threat of being murdered is a huge improvement for many of these people. You mention several negatives of illegal immigration – crime (this is controversial, at least in the US), terrorism, decreased social trust, etc. But it is unclear to me why the incredible gains in quality of life for illegal immigrants do not enter the equation. I think utility losses that some natives experience due to illegal immigration count for something, and I do not think unchecked illegal immigration would be good for anyone, but illegal immigrants are human beings and the very real benefits immigration provides them cannot simply be left off the table in this debate.

    I think your zero-sum view of the situation also clouds your judgment. Many illegal immigrants are unskilled, but many are also willing to work very hard, often for lower pay than their native counterparts. Progressives decry this as exploitation; conservatives call it job-destroying; but neither seems to be able to understand that these immigrants benefit from being employed, and natives benefit from lower prices. Simply calling it ‘territorial competition’ completely ignores the way in which immigration (legal or illegal) can benefit the host country as well as the immigrants themselves.

    Finally, as I believe a few other comments mention above, it seems likely that there are cheaper ways to achieve a reduction in illegal immigration, be it through visa reform, an end to the war on drugs (in the US), or other methods, it seems that a truly successful defense of border walls would need to reckon with these alternative solutions first.

    • augustine says

      “But it is unclear to me why the incredible gains in quality of life for illegal immigrants do not enter the equation.”

      What equation are you using? By this line of thinking it would be wonderful for a homeless person to find refuge by breaking into your home, expecting or demanding that he can stay there indefinitely. That would be an incredible gain in quality of life for him. Are you so selfless you would accept this scenario and if so would you demand that your neighbors accept similar trespasses in their homes?

      “… it seems that a truly successful defense of border walls would need to reckon with these alternative solutions first.”

      We may debate the particulars but as you say, “I do not think unchecked illegal immigration would be good for anyone”. Controlling the borders is that check. No one is talking about a Berlin wall here. The border with Mexico is already strong in some key places and basically non-existent in others. Such differentials will exist in any future developments but right now it is clear that our border (and visa tracking) are weak.

  13. Skythe says

    I stopped reading after “immigration = islam = crime = terror”.

    Enough right-wing Nazi nonsense by some ignorant person who got his knowledge about immigration from FOX News.

  14. When our species is in plague numbers migrating to greener fields is – well- fatuous. If the Left would concede this, the alt-right would not exist, nor would Trump have been elected. We must all be responsible for our birthplace, there really is no other place left to go. Stand and deliver in our own homeland.

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