Wall obsession

Donald Trump, Viktor Orban, Ariel Sharon… have all resorted to building their own border wall. Today, the European Union is heavily investing to control its external borders. How to explain such contemporary obsession with border militarization? Following is a review of an analysis and a research process.

The control set up at Israel’s  « security barrier » in the occupied  WestBank and at the US « border fence » along the Mexican border are two examples illustrating the normalization of border security policies. Resorting to what is usually named as « wall » goes far beyond the decision of controlling mobilities perceived as dangerous, or managing cross-border violence: it is also part of a political performance meant for  walled-in citizens, staged by security professionals and, most of the time, xenophobic conservative actors.

It is therefore necessary to develop a critical approach to the way mobilities and migrations are constructed and handled as security issues nowadays. It should also be added that, as a result, societies have grown more strongly militarist to the detriment of economic, legal or humanitarian approaches of migration.

L’obsession du mur. Politique de militarisation des frontières en Israël et aux États-Unis questions both the patterns and functions of such contemporary  bordering. It thus follows on the analysis of walls as the sign of declining State sovereignty and examines the political performance at stake by studying the pro-wall actors involved. The analysis also relies on the comparison of similar processes of wall legitimization and on qualitative fieldwork research. Based on an ethnographic immersive approach with « pro-wallers » in two different contexts, it ultimately tackles political and security controversies as well as asymmetrical relations between countries or peoples separated by a wall.


  • Simonneau D., 2020 L’obsession du mur. Politique de militarisation des frontières en Israël et aux États-Unis, Berne: Peter Lang, coll. « enjeux internationaux ».

Damien Simonneau is a member of the Institut Convergences Migrations, Collège de France (damien.simonneau@college-de-france.fr)

Traduit par : Ann Fournier Le Ray, depuis l’article « L’obsession du mur » de Damien Simonneau


The wall? What for?

The first contribution of the research is therefore to shed light on the unilateral character of border militarization policies. To that purpose, it is necessary to specify and prolong Wendy Brown’s thesis according to which the idea of the wall both marks and reasserts State control over its territory against the contemporary decline of state sovereignty. Beyond control and protection, the wall fulfils the political function of a performance meant for walled-in societies: state actors and those they work with put on a performance whose scenery is the walled-in territory. So doing, they highlight the image of a besieged but nevertheless protective State who is taking action at its edges to protect its citizens from “invaders”. All these actors together stage the border as an exclusionary zone. Whether in discourse or in their practices, they play on recurrent themes such as asserting state sovereignty, fighting identity threats, the capacity of the State to ensure control, protecting citizens against the consequences of globalization, etc. while assigning them to border security. Border control is then supposed to echo citizens’ representations.

This dramatization develops within controversies and debates about the modalities of securing borders and about citizens’ perceptions of foreigners: hence, it is not hegemonic.  The literature on border studies demonstrates that the effects of this border reinforcement coincide with those of decreasing or even disappearing controls.  Border security should be handled in terms of political negotiations, cooperation, conflicts and claims, in short in terms of the political processes which keep constructing it. This perspective will focus, on the one hand, on how political and moral entrepreneurs are central to the construction of immigration as a problem and as a security issue and, on the other hand, how narratives are disseminated within the parliamentary, legal and media arenas. 

In the cases of Israel and the United States, « pro-wallers » classify Palestinian and Mexican otherness as a threat and an enemy.  They dramatize a defensive identity. Thus, they delegitimize alternative bordering scenarios supported by other actors insisting on coexistence, cultural integration or economic cooperation. By doing so, they reinforce their societies’ militarism, that is to say, literally preparing them to a state of war – in this case,  « border wars ». Their attitude echoes other border security policies, at the European external borders or in Australia, for example.

The wall? How?

The second contribution of the research work is to sociologize this performance of control through a model of analysis devised from a comparison.  The comparison between the two social movements’ repertoires of contention and representations to support what they name « barrier » identifies similar processes. Differences in terms of geopolitical contexts, economic integration, political systems and national cultures can thus be set aside in order to focus on the similarities, that is on the political processes which legitimate turning to walls. This comparative approach helps to find an appropriate balance between the specificity of each case and the increasing generalization of border security. This model could thus apply to the case of the external borders of the European Union.  

This comparative approach has permitted to identify three actions carried out by these pro-wall social movements, in their own political context. Mobilities in the border area are first constructed as issues and defined as political national concerns. Next, these issues are relabelled as security issues requiring the implementation of military technologies mobilizing police and military expertise. Finally, the dissemination of this pro-barrier set-up implies challenging governmental decisions regarding defence and immigration: it relies on protest actions with adequate media coverage, on staging the materiality of barriers to symbolize the necessity of militarizing the border area.

Analysing these actions relies therefore on a theoretical framework combining the securitization theory and the construction of public problems. Securitization is a major theory in security studies which permits to analyse the way an issue becomes a « matter of security », that is, an existential threat requiring extraordinary means to be used. Studying securitization implies studying the sensationalized dramatization of the migration « problem » and the techniques that shape it and make it part of the public space.

Such perspective analyses its gradual progress as protest develops in interaction between “pro-wallers” and the State under permanent public scrutiny. Thus, the sociology of public problems enriches the study of securitization. By using the notions of « publicization » of confrontation, of « framings », they allow to refine the transcription of mobilities and of border situations. In this process, the role of police and military experts is crucial.

So as to allow some distance from the pro-wall state narratives, the proposed model is devised   « from the bottom », from non-state actors. It thus focuses on the processes and relations between the different actors supporting border militarization. The study of border security therefore follows the « process »: it starts from the pro-wallers’ places of interaction and leads to the perception of the global phenomenon of border militarization, through an international political sociology (IPS) approach. Hence, studying these processes links up individual, local, national and international issues. 

How to conduct a survey on « pro-wallers »? 

Studying « pro-wallers » has required a long period of immersion with them in the two countries. In concrete terms, in Israel, they consist in associations and think-tanks which have kept increasing since 2001. Some regrouped and set up a national coalition to put pressure on   Sharon’s government in 2003. One coalition coordinated local pressures along the Green line, on the army and Knesset representatives.

In Arizona, in early April 2010, republican representatives set up a committee, launched a fundraising initiative entitled « Build the Border Fence » and regrouped all those in favour of the increased militarization of the State borders. What for?  They wanted the  federal government  to increase the means dedicated to « border security ». The range of people involved is broad: representatives, sheriffs, directors of Arizona institutions, but also  ranchersassociations, border chambers of commerce, groups of vigilantes patrolling in the desert and  Tea Party members.

In both cases, fieldwork relies on an ethnographic approach which involves relationships with interviewees and implies being immersed in their political events. The data collected do not only result from the interviews with the actors but are also generated by non-participant observation, by permeation and by collecting written sources (press, internet websites, reports, pamphlets, etc.).

This fieldwork survey took place in a strong asymmetrical context, straddling the wall, hovering over some pervasive social, political and security antagonism. This necessarily affects the researcher’s subjectivity, who is able to move more freely than the populations on either side of the wall and whose analysis is therefore impacted by his own political values. Conducting fieldwork research about pro-wallers also means listening to them, considering their arguments, approaching them and their «pro-walls» policies without any prejudice.

This immersion resulted in a trustful relationship with the interviewees. In the course of interactions, their early fears, hostility or amusement at the beginning of the survey gradually disappeared. This change of attitude shows that the ethnographic approach proves fruitful and efficient once trust has been gained.

Consequently, the image of « difficult » « pro-wall » fieldwork should be put into perspective. « Difficult » does not necessarily mean « dangerous »: fieldworks may turn out to be difficult because of physical or psychological dangers, but there also may be an epistemological risk, a challenge to axiological neutrality.  In this particular research work, difficulties have mostly been epistemological, in the distance to be found in terms of values with its interviewees.


  • Balzacq T., 2018, « Théories de la sécuritisation, 1989-2018 » Études internationales, vol. 49, n°1, 7-24.


Crédits images en CC :  Flaticon Eucalyp, wanicon, ultimatearm, Freepik, Icongeek26

 

More articles in English..

 

 


Damien Simonneau

Collège de France, Institut Convergences Migrations (damien.simonneau@college-de-france.fr)

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