After terrorists strike, the first instinct is to raise walls. But democracies thrive on openness.



The priority of every person and every society is to survive. President François Hollande declared the emergency closing of France’s borders after terrorists struck Paris on Nov. 13. The following Monday he announced to Parliament, meeting in Versailles, that Europe as a whole must keep out enemies, or France will take matters into its own hands. Lives, he said, were at stake. “If Europe doesn’t control its external borders, it is the return of national borders or walls and barbed wire,” Hollande said. After the speechhe and the lawmakers sternly sang La Marseillaise.


It’s not just a shaken France that’s talking about walls and barbed wire. Hungary just built a wall along its border with Serbia. India has walled itself off from Bangladesh. Israel has fenced the West Bank and Gaza. Morocco built a sand berm to block attacks by separatists from Western Sahara. And in the U.S., Donald Trump leapt to the front of the race for the Republican presidential nomination by promising to build “the greatest wall that you’ve ever seen” on the long border with Mexico.


A wall going up is prima facie evidence that something bad is going down. Terrorism isn’t the only thing, of course: Trump and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban have both mentioned keeping out rapists and job stealers as justifications for their barriers. But terrorism is what has taken wall building from a fringe concern to the mainstream. Concrete barriers, metal fences, barbed wire, searchlights, guard dogs, and jeep patrols along borders are physical evidence of the damage that terrorism has done to the sense that we’re all in this together.


The tragedy is that walls hurt those who obey the law more than terrorists, who usually find a way to go over, under, or around them. What’s worse, isolating entire communities and nations because potential terrorists live among them often backfires, engendering more of the hatred that it’s meant to protect against. That’s what makes terrorism so diabolical: Like an autoimmune disease, it provokes civilized societies to behave in self-defeating ways.


A terrorism-induced backlash against migration would harm rich and poor alike. Wealthy, aging nations need young workers, while immigrants need jobs and money to send home to their families. Nations such as Japan that are allergic to immigration are paying a stiff price for their splendid isolation in terms of low growth, while immigration-friendly countries like Germany are reaping rewards. Even in this chaotic year, the German Institute for Economic Research in Berlin calculates that the immigration surge will account for about 0.2 percentage points of Germany’s estimated 1.8 percent output growth, mostly because of the Keynesian stimulus of higher government spending.


Europe provides some of the strongest evidence of the benefits of openness. Per-capita income would now be 50 percent lower in Ireland and 25 percent lower in Denmark and the U.K. if they hadn’t joined the predecessor to the European Union in 1973, according to a calculation by Nauro Campos of Brunel University, Fabrizio Coricelli of the Paris School of Economics, and Luigi Moretti of the University of Padova published last year by the U.K.-based Centre for Economic Policy Research.


Europe’s Schengen agreement, which allows passport-free travel between signatory nations, is at risk of unraveling under the stress of mass migration (itself fueled by terror in the Middle East) and now the Paris attacks. Schengen, concluded in 1985 and effective since 1995, is one of the proudest achievements of modern Europe—more popular and more widely adopted than the euro. The ability to drive between countries without so much as tapping the brakes has promoted tourism, trade, and the free movement of labor. Italian companies do more business with the Swiss, because their trucks don’t get stopped at the border. And Chinese tourists are more likely to visit Germany if they know they can swing through France and Spain as well without getting another visa. When two countries are in Schengen, trade between them increases an extra 0.1 percent each year, says Dane Davis, a commodity researcher who co-wrote a paper on Schengen published last year in the World Economy, an academic journal.


To young, cosmopolitan Europeans, the threat to reimpose border controls inside Europe is as alarming as it would be to Americans if New York announced it was going to check documents at the George Washington Bridge. Austria, the Czech Republic, Germany, the Netherlands, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Sweden have begun some form of emergency border checks. If Schengen dissolves, trade and investment ties could begin to unravel as well, because countries would begin to lose the sense of European unity, says Adriano Bosoni, a Barcelona-based analyst for geopolitical consulting firm Stratfor. “Once you start abolishing the founding principles of the EU, it’s like a domino effect,” he says.


The trick, as always, is to target the bad guys—terrorists, organized criminals—without harming innocent people in the communities that they’ve wormed their way into. Walls rarely accomplish both goals. The fence between India and Bangladesh has stopped trade in fish but not in contraband Indian-made cough syrup, consumed as a narcotic, that “is wreaking havoc with our youth,” Bangladeshi social activist and business leader Sabera Ahmed Koli told Al Jazeera.


There’s mounting evidence that Western banks have overreacted in complying with anti-money-laundering laws aimed at cutting off terrorists’ access to financing. Through strict implementation of the new rules, big banks are making it harder for people to remit money to family members and “driving people to go back to informal channels where [the transactions] are less visible,” says Nestor Espenilla Jr., deputy governor in charge of supervision at the central bank of the Philippines. In Somalia, “the fear is that without remittances, the terrorist group Al-Shabaab will take advantage of the desperation of Somalis,” Representative Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) said earlier this year. A U.S. Department of Treasury spokesman says it’s “working hard to facilitate legitimate financial flows.”


Terrorists are quick to work their mind games on immigrants who feel isolated or abandoned in the wealthy nations they now call home. It’s worth remembering that most refugees want nothing to do with terrorists, who since 2000 have committed 97 percent of their murders in poor nations such as Nigeria, Syria, and Afghanistan, according to the Institute for Economics and Peace. In the U.S. and in Europe, governments need to strengthen their ties to immigrant communities to get early warning signs of disaffection, anger, and radicalization, says Eli Berman, a specialist on the economics of terrorism at the University of California at San Diego. In other words, break down walls that terrorists would rather build higher. Says Berman: “Radicalism is all about creating distance from mainstream society.”


Hope, not walls, is the best protection against terrorism, says Jamal Nassar, a political scientist at California State University at San Bernardino, who was born in Jerusalem two years before Israel was founded in 1948. “You cannot build a wall around the world. People will find a way, tunnel under walls, fly over. They will find a way if they are determined to bring about violence.” Conversely, Nassar says, “when there is light at the end of the tunnel, people will move forward and try to improve their lives.”


That ode to openness is hard to absorb when the killers are at your door. The tendency is to withdraw, to defend. And politicians don’t help matters when they play to the worst instincts of their people. Governors of at least 26 U.S. states have said they oppose efforts to have refugees from Syria relocated to their states. In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel is under fire from opposition politicians for inviting about 1 million asylum seekers into the country this year. To his credit, Hollande isn’t all about barriers. He vowed on Nov. 18 to take in 30,000 immigrants over the next two years.


The best reason not to wall oneself off is that most people around the world, most of the time, are pretty reasonable. Islamic State is a dramatic exception. Ultimately, though, its bloody extremism makes Islamic State its own worst enemy. Even al-Qaeda doesn’t like it. Says Berman, the expert on the economics of terrorism: “The suicidal shooter, that’s an effective strategy. The suicidal caliphate, that’s a doomed strategy.”


Peter Coy