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Monument to Fear

The two volumes of 'This American Wall' are expensive and cumbersome—just like the border wall itself

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I was offended when I first picked up Maurice Sherif's The American Wall.

I hated its size (12 1/2 by 15 by 3 inches), its weight (15 pounds on my bathroom scale), and its ugliness (dirty white, dirty black and dirty gray). It was a two-volume, slip-cased monstrosity—heavy, unwieldy, expensive, impractical.

If this wasn't awful enough, upon opening the photography volume, I discovered loose, blank-paper inserts annoyingly scattered throughout. A smaller insert claimed they were there for "protection." Many of the pages turned out to be double and triple foldouts. The hassle involved in juggling this heavy volume and those loose pages—while somehow figuring out how to open the foldouts without ripping them, dropping the whole mess, or herniating myself—caused me to quietly seethe.

I went and poured myself a generous splash of The Singleton of Glendullan (12 years old). The Scotch whisky worked its magic, and I went back to contemplate ... this thing on my coffee table.

Something clicked in my brain: I stupidly realized I was missing the whole point—I was supposed to be offended. This giant ugly slab of paper and cloth-covered cardboard is itself meant to be a work of art—a complex psycho-visual, experiential metaphor for the U.S-Mexico border wall. The work could be seen (with apologies to Pink Floyd) as "just another brick in the wall." Wow.

Sipping more of the single-malt, I got to work. I found the best way to handle the volumes was to put a pillow in my lap, supporting and cradling the huge books as I carefully paged through them.

In 2005, the American government began building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. If completed, it will be roughly 1,952 miles long and average 25 feet in height. By contrast, the infamous Berlin Wall of the Cold War years was about 66 miles long and some 12 feet high.

In order to simplify the process, Congress authorized (under the Real ID Act of 2005) an exemption for the Department of Homeland Security, granting it the unprecedented ability to waive any laws that might impede construction of the wall—laws providing for an environmental-impact analysis, laws protecting cultural and natural resources, and even laws protecting private property rights. Ah, freedom.

Maurice Sherif is a French photographer whose previous published works consist of a pair of obscure volumes on the melting glaciers of Patagonia (Lueurs des Tenebres) and a study of night architecture in Paris (Lumiere Metallique). Regarding the current project, Sherif says he has "stalked the wall" along the U.S.-Mexico border since 2007.

The first (white) volume consists of written responses to the border wall—in English, Spanish and French translations—by various border experts: a journalist (my hero Charles Bowden), two anthropologists, an artist and spokesman for the group No Border Wall, an immigration-law professor, and a doctor. There is also a helpfully annotated historical timeline of the border wall's history and a short introductory piece by Sherif. These essays are vital for placing the black-and-white photos in the accompanying (black) volume into their social and cultural context.

The wall is a monument to American fear made real, we learn. It does virtually nothing to stop immigration or smuggling. It is representative of a deliberate policy (described here as "necro-power") by the U.S. government to kill poor people by pushing economic refugees (ironically created in part by government economic policies such as the North American Free Trade Agreement) into the desolate wastelands of the Great American Desert. They die there on American soil by the hundreds each year—agonizingly slow, horrible, sometimes violent deaths out of sight and sound of the TV cameras.

The second volume consists of Sherif's intense black-and-white photographs of the wall. Printed using an obscure process called quadratone, they are stark, industrial, post-apocalyptic. There are no people in these photos, just hardened black steel and ruined landscapes. The wall could eventually cost $49 billion over 25 years. More than 3,300 breaches so far have required expensive repairs.

Two reactions emerge after spending time with these powerful, wrenching volumes: One is the hope that they will someday be released in an affordable single-volume paperback version so that more people can be exposed to what is at stake here. Secondly, you feel an urge to run outside, shouting, "Mr. Obama, tear down this wall!"

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