Walls as Security Theater

Interesting essay on walls and their effects:

Walls, then, are built not for security, but for a sense of security. The distinction is important, as those who commission them know very well. What a wall satisfies is not so much a material need as a mental one. Walls protect people not from barbarians, but from anxieties and fears, which can often be more terrible than the worst vandals. In this way, they are built not for those who live outside them, threatening as they may be, but for those who dwell within. In a certain sense, then, what is built is not a wall, but a state of mind.

The essay goes on to talk about the value of walls as security theater.

Posted on December 2, 2011 at 5:30 AM28 Comments


bob December 2, 2011 6:02 AM

Interesting essay and I understand his point; but I’m fairly certain that if I removed my walls, my possessions would rapidly follow.

Any my house would fall down.

Roger December 2, 2011 6:20 AM

Like an unfortunately substantial subset of philosophical writing, this essay manages to drown itself in the marshes of semantic muddiness.

Not all walls are equivalent. This essay is specifically about the utility of walls as a non-military security component of national borders — more specifically, it is really just about the US-Mexico border. Yet it veers into discussing military defences, walls in houses, psychological blocks, and anything vaguely, metaphorically like a wall.

To muddle them together is a nonsense. Walls as military defence were extremely effective until the invention of gunpowder. Since then, they have been been of limited use, but by no means useless. Walls in houses — well, is Bradatan suggesting that we all live in tents? Where I live it gets a long way below freezing in winter, so “no, thanks.”

This muddle is illustrated by Bradatan himself when he says:
“Walls are built for various reasons … but their function is always fundamentally the same: to create divisions, to prevent people and ideas from moving freely,”
Clearly this is simply untrue. There are many, many walls — probably most, in fact — that have nothing to do with preventing the flow of ideas. There are also many — albeit fewer — that have nothing to do with preventing the flow of people. This “always fundamental” character is nothing of the sort.

These wide swings are bolstered by a rusty panoply of false facts: facts about the Great Wall of China, long debunked; stories about the Ottomans and Constantinople which bear no resemblance to the actual siege or its social and political circumstances.

Stripped of this muddle, the essay is essentially claiming that erection of a wall along the US-Mexico border will be counter-productive because it will alert this Mexicans to the fact that the US has good stuff to hide from them. Starkly rendered down to this essence, the essay is clearly nonsense. Everyone in Mexico knows fairly well what conditions are like in the US because they can watch US TV shows and films if they wish, and for more reliable reporting many have relatives who live there. A wall will make no difference to that, positively or negatively.

Certainly there is an important debate to be had here. As a security barrier, a well-guarded wall can be worthwhile. It is a synergistic effect: the presence of guarding reduces the size and complexity required of the barrier; while the barrier reduces the man-power needed for guarding. It remains to be seen whether such a balanced design is economically feasible on the scale of the 2000 mile border between these north American states.

It remains to be seen whether the US political process can create a balanced design, when it is more likely to either build a wall so expensive that no-one can be paid to guard it, or a wall so cheap that they cannot afford enough guards (according to which wind blows through economic policy on the day.)

It remains to be seen whether it is economically, socially or politically either desirable or feasible to create a barrier on such a scale in the current economic an=d socio-political climate of the USA.

But this essay does not address these questions.

Chris Miller December 2, 2011 6:21 AM

I think he’s failed to distinguish (which is not acceptable in a professional philosopher) between walls along national boundaries (iron curtain, Hadrian, China, …) and personal walls such as those of or around a house. The security purpose of the latter (like most security defences) is not to render my home invulnerable – impossible given a sufficiently determined attacker – but to make it at least as secure as my neighbours.

National walls have rarely achieved a security purpose, although the Israeli attempt may be effective in practical terms (even though it may turn out to be politically disastrous).

kingsnake December 2, 2011 6:58 AM

Roger, walls might have been good at keeping out enemies before gunpowder, but that’s what starvation, dehydration and disease (also known as a siege) were for. Also, walls could only be built around limited areas — like then much smaller cities — with any effectiveness. (Unless one had the unpaid labor of millions of Chinese coolies at one’s disposal.) Otherwise walls were static inconveniences easily avoided by those with the appropriate degree of skill, intelligence and desire. Pretty much like now.

Valtteri Kokkoniemi December 2, 2011 7:03 AM

Walls are anything but security theater. They are essential component of defence in depth. Combined with effective detection of anyone moving near the wall on either side or scaling it, a wall both makes malicious intent more obvious and buys time for response. It also allows for more efficient rules of engagement, as accidental intrusion can be ruled out.

If we consider perimeter walls (or fences) and structural walls combined, the effect is even more powerful, as intruder has to get whatever equipment required to breach the structural walls inside the perimeter wall first, being already detected.

Gabriel December 2, 2011 7:19 AM

Besides peace of mind, another value of a wall is that it provides a greater psychological barrier to would be intruders and trespassers. Much easier to walk over your neighbor’s property with no fence. Add even a weak picket fence, and the threshold for willfully trespassing goes up substantially. Similar to how they say locks keep honest people honest. How many homes get broken into, vs how many evictees are burglarized when their possessions are on the front lawn.

Besides, walls also provide effective security against weather and animals, and are a critical component of privacy.

Rick December 2, 2011 7:56 AM

Hmm… we’ve heard this before, about 100 years ago, when Franz Kafka wrote “The Great Wall of China.”

2ndhandunderpants December 2, 2011 8:22 AM

wellll state of mind or not, some walls are solely built for thermal resistivity.

many people support the theory that some walls do in fact provide actual physical protection. protection that can quantitatively proven to protect against undesired temperatures.

William Love December 2, 2011 8:32 AM

Actually there is an interesting point here outside of the concept of physical walls -imposing procedural, economic, or legal “walls” as nonphysical security to make a place uninhabitable/impenetrable to others on some level. I personally would define a “wall” in this sense as a barrier with self contained consequences (rather than one with delayed or third party consequences, or a separate cost of enforcement). For instance, there would be a distinction between the high cost of entering a market (a wall) and the predatory nature of your competitors (a reaction to entering that may or may not occur but would certainly occur after you entered).

The problem I find even in the legal field, where I am paid to figure out where these walls are, is that people mistake the self contained consequence of the action (that the wall is big) with other consequences (that going over the wall may lead to prosecution) or inappropriately only think of a single factor. Considering that the human factor isn’t always there, that the self contained consequence isn’t always there, or that people inherently lie about their or others “defenses” and take those lies as truth, it pays to be mindful so you can overcome a wall if needed, or create one that is effective.

After all if we always believed that change wasn’t possible, it wouldn’t matter what sort of wall separated us from freedom or our other goals.

I think that is is part of the point that is being made.

Jim T December 2, 2011 8:35 AM

Been all over the world including Berlin before the wall came down. In my experience, one of the easiest ways to tell if the wall is security theater is by the size of the dog on the other side of it.

vasiliy pupkin December 2, 2011 8:40 AM

In the Soviet Union old man (OM) came to Moscow from rural side. On Red Square he asked policeman (P) why the walls around the Kremlin are so high?
P: In order to prevent idiots from climbing over them. OM: From inside or from outside? That is politics and walls.

Walls are key for privacy, to control flow of information about our personal life.

Q: Why height of walls around personal property are so strictly regulated by cities & states?

paul December 2, 2011 9:30 AM

I’m not too sure about this walls-creating-desire thing, or at least the examples. When I was a kid in germany in the 60s, I went to a school whose principal (and his family) had escaped from East Berlin the spring before that Wall was built. People living in east germany knew exactly where they wanted to go, and it was in fact the steady exodus of thousands upon thousands that l ed to the erection of the wall in the first place.

One other thing walls do is create a false concentration of attention — hence the security theater — on obvious means of entry or exit. Many is the time you see a reinforced, pry-proof dead-bolted metal door with a steel frame set into a wall made of lightweight studs and sheetrock. (Same goes for the apparently never-ending discovery of tunnels under the southern US border.)

Clive Robinson December 2, 2011 9:56 AM

If you think about a wall it’s effectivly a two dimensional extension of the one dimensional “50ft stake in the ground” made infamous by certain security gurus…

At a glance most people can see a stake whilst it might be very solid and in many respects very dependable is easily by passed at the sides, and for those with a sense of humour by “flying over” or digging under.

When you look at a two dimensional wall at it’s simplest it is two “stakes in the ground” with some kind of paneling in between then. It suffers from the same problems as the one dimensional stake in that you can go around it over it or under it. All you have done is make the walk around it a little bit harder so it is of marginaly more utility.

When a stake becomes a lot more interesting is when you move into three dimensions with three or more stakes in the ground to form an appropriatly named “enclosure”. You have effectivly removed the ability to walk around the ends, but you still have not solved the “going over, or diging under” problems.

To solve this you put a couple of “walls” in over and below the existing walls, all of a sudden you have a roof and floor giving a “room” or if all the walls are solid enough a “vault”.

However there is what some people call the “fourth dimension” of “time”. It does not matter how strong or thick the walls are, eventually they will fail to an uninterrupted attack.

Thus you have to consider how you make “walls in time”, the usual way with defences in the tangible world is by deploying “detection” and “response” to prevent an attack going all the way to a breach.

The problem is we humans are of the tangible world and things like “detection” and “response” are not naturally intuative to most of us. That is they belong to the nebulous intangable world of ideas which is essentially the “information world”.

Thus we usually muck up the both detection and response and the “clever” attacker not only breaches the defenses of the walls but gets away with their chosen target of their attack.

When you start moving from the tangable to the intangable “walls” have less and less meaning and we incorrectly bring agross the baggage of the axioms of the physical world to a place where they cease to be axioms and are in reality false or faux assumptions, that bind our thinking like invisable chains.

And what do we do?

Well we try to buttress up the faux assumptions with other faux assumptions such as “legislation” which is in reality still based on the tangable world where geographical limitations impinge in the form of “jurisdictions”.

The thing is we get the direction of flow in the wrong direction, security features that work in the intangable world still work in the tangable world, the opposit is most certainly not true because of those faux assumptions…

Thus we have seen tangable world crime limitations blown out of the water in the information world.

Such fundemental physical world limitations such as “localisation” and “distance” have little or no meaning, that is the constraint of ” physical forces” and the speed of light have little or no effect. Likewise the energy required for “force multipliers” is sufficiently insignificant as to have no meaning to the attacker and thus an individual can have the equivalent effect of an “overwhelming army”. Combined this has strange but quite predictable “knock-on” effects, such that the use of “probability” in actuarial work has lost it’s traditional meaning, thus the fundemental ideas behind insurance of “spreading risk” over time and distance have little meaning.

So in many respects we have arrived at a point in time where our world view has to change from the past millennia of millennium over which our brains have adapted to the physical world.

Walls have started to lose their meaning and we will look on them in the same quaint way that the “50ft stake in the ground” metaphor is supposed to convay.

Will it be a “brave new world” or will we be condemed to “live in interesting times” whilst our thinking tries and potentialy fails to adapt…

John Doe December 2, 2011 10:09 AM

This is old news. If you fly large planes like a Boeing 747 or a Airbus A330 you will notice that the economy class is very often split by “walls”. The only reason for this: make people feel more comfortable and prevent them from seeing the other huge crowd in the plane…

Chris S December 2, 2011 10:31 AM

It is very common for municipal bylaws to regulate fortification of property. For reasons such as fire safety, your house walls can not be too strong.

If you actually tried to build a house wall strong enough to really prevent all types of attack, you should expect to eventually receive a visit from your bylaw enforcement officer.

This is not theoretical — some gang clubhouses have run into this bylaw limitation as they attempt to fortify their lodgings.

Dr. I. Needtob Athe December 2, 2011 10:57 AM

I guess in this sense, walls are sort of like Joo Janta 200 Super-Chromatic Peril Sensitive Sunglasses, which are designed to help people develop a relaxed attitude toward danger. They work by turning completely dark at the first sign of danger, thus preventing you from seeing anything that might alarm you.

Jim December 2, 2011 11:02 AM

I guess this makes sense as it is well known that when spies really need a sense of security, the meet in public places, like a public park.

another brick in the wall December 2, 2011 12:37 PM

Great article. I was reflecting on how the illusion of security with walls is like the illusion of security with security perimeters. Say your two targeted citizens in the park can’t see the perimeter of observers, say the observers don’t realize beyond them is standing a man with a video camera, taping an Arab couple walking past the targets in the park. Say the Arab couple drops something near the bench where the targets are. Turn and say something to the bench sitters. The videotape shows something quite different than what the observers in the perimeter see and here.
Your wall of observers is as fallible as the concrete wall. They aren’t watching anything but the targets. Two reports are generated. One says the bench folks were talking about innocent things and had nothing to do with the passing Muslims.
The other report, with the videotape, says it looks like a drop occurred.
So the agency paying for the reports gets bad data, and the security perimeter is just stage dressing.

Jeff Wegerson December 2, 2011 1:17 PM

I do lightweight backpacking. For weight and other reasons I use a tarp rather than a tent. The maker of my tarp, Ray Jardine, has found that one of the concerns people have about the idea of camping under a tarp is the insecurity of not having walls. They express that concern even as they readily admit that tent walls would be no protection at all against pretty much any animal that would want to get inside. Ray then reminds them of a security advantage to the lack of tent walls which is the ability to escape quickly in all directions.

Glenn Maynard December 2, 2011 1:30 PM

Walls act as a deterrent. People are less likely to walk away with your TV if it’s inside the walls of your house than if it’s sitting on your lawn. It also may be a legal deterrent, adding trespassing or B&E to the theft. It’s also an added layer of protection; it’s undebatably harder to get in and out of a house than an open parking lot.

Many people have the notion that a security mechanism which is less than perfect has zero value, and that’s nonsense.

Heretic December 2, 2011 4:12 PM

Much of the article seems to assume that walls, especially physical walls, stop things. But that’s armor. Most of the time walls (and moats, trenches, etc.) serve only to slow an attacker. They give the wall builder more time to think, and respond reasonably.

Erwin December 3, 2011 8:31 PM

Its important to see that transport needs walls offering possibilities to go somewhere where it is different. However I havent seen a lot differences lately rendering transport absurd in many occasions.

Vles December 4, 2011 5:32 AM

Great article, thanks for sharing.
It goes extremely well with a book I’m reading at the moment from prof. Richard Sennett (not sure of all his titles) called The Culture of the New Capitalism in which he describes the postmodern capitalism’s breakdown of societal walls (Weber’s iron cage or pyramid like corporate structures):

Based on the author’s Castle Lectures at Yale, this book is a sociological study of the influence of the New Economy on human relationships. Sennett describes the transformations that have taken place in postmodern capitalism as corporations have become more diffuse, unstable, and decentered. Contrasted with the ‘iron cage’ bureaucracy described by Weber – those pyramid-like corporate structures in which individuals knew their place and planned their futures – modern corporations provide no long-term stability, benefits, social capital, or interpersonal trust.

It’s an eye opener. Book has the effect of lifting the lid of my brain and shine a torch through it. I’ve also bought the Craftsman, though I’ve yet to start reading it.


Will it be a “brave new world” or will we be condemed to “live in interesting times” whilst our thinking tries and potentialy fails to adapt…

..and then came Napoleon: “Activité, vitesse, vitesse!”

@Rudyard Kipling and GSP Jr..
The unforgiving minute in this information age has become the unforgiving millisecond

And in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels it wasn’t the walls that changed in Hogwarths, but the stairs connecting the floors. Same sense of security, but keep being challenged to think. Brilliant!

yt December 5, 2011 9:09 AM

Speaking of structural security theater, I engage in a bit of security theater every evening when I put the security chain on the front door of my apartment. I live on the ground floor and there’s nothing but a few panes of glass between my living room and the outside. Any intruders certainly won’t be coming in through the front door. The security chain doesn’t make my apartment any more secure, but it makes me feel better and it keeps the insurance company happy.

David Harmon December 6, 2011 6:14 AM

YT: My own “apartment” (actually part of a townhouse development) is is similar, and yet that “security” chain actually does serve a specific and useful function:

There are staffers (maintenance, exterminator) who are authorized to enter my apartment in my absence, and have access to duplicate keys for that purpose. By setting the chain, I notify them that I am at home and possibly undressed or otherwise in “private circumstances”. If they find the chain latched, they will call out verbally, but if they don’t get an answer, they will leave a card (“we were unable to access your apartment for the following purpose”) and arrange to come back later.

That chain isn’t meant to provide a hard barrier; it marks a boundary, social rather than military. But it’s no less important for that, because social boundaries are important to humans as social animals. Physically, a 10-year-old child could break into my apartment (albeit, not without leaving traces), but people in our culture, and I’d say most human cultures, are trained from early childhood not to violate someone else’s territory. Thus, social (and legal) boundaries can replace many physical barriers, and in practice can even be more protective.

By the same token, most of the reaction against recent developments in the American government, comes from the fact that they are increasingly willing to violate the territory, and privacy, of their citizens, and increasingly unwilling to enforce private territory and privacy against other actors such as corporations. This is already having consequences, as cops and citizens kill each other primarily over just such invasions.

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