Thursday, May 15, 2008

City of Walls

Michael Gordon's vivid reporting from Baghdad, in this mornings NYTimes raised again for me the question of how our security strategies in Iraq relate to our domestic security strategies. Gordon's frighteningly close descriptions of of American and Iraqi soldiers battling insurgents over the construction of a series of security walls through portions Sadr City, brought to mind the well established pattern of gated communities as part of middle and upper class security in the United States and globally.

The walls in Baghdad are aimed to create secured zones around the core area of Shi-ite popular resistance to American and Iraqi government forces. But as Gordon notes, the wall seems to become as much a site of violence as a tool for repressing it.

The Americans began building the wall a month ago, working east to west. The work started at night but soon extended into the day as American commanders sought to speed up the construction.

Supporters of Moktada al-Sadr, the anti-American cleric, denounced the wall as a nefarious effort to divide the city. Militia fighters with rocket-propelled grenades, machine guns and small arms have been trying to halt its construction.

Those efforts have failed, and the barrier is now 80 percent complete. But the fighters have blown a few gaps in the wall and, in one instance, appear to have hitched a truck to a damaged slab to yank it down. To make it hard for the Americans to fix the holes, the fighters have continued to seed the strip south of the barrier with explosively formed penetrators, a particularly lethal type of roadside bomb. Some have been hidden in the cracks or depressions in the wall itself.

Social scientists have long noted the trend toward walled security in cities without insurgencies, but where great economic inequality and alarming crime fears led those with resources to seek a new private kind of public space. In her classic work on the walled neighborhoods of Sao Paulo, Brazil, City of Walls: Crime, Segregation, and and Citizenship in Sao Paulo, Berkeley professor Teresa Pires do Rio Caldiera writes:

Fortified enclaves are privatized, enclosed, and monitored spaces for residence, consumption, leisure, and work. They can be shopping malls, office complexes, or residential gated communities. They appeal to those who fear that social heterogeneity of older urban quarters and choose to abandon those spaces to the poor, the “marginal,” and the homeless. (4)

What is the relationship between these security strategies? Was the walled neighborhood as piece of colonial anti-insurgency strategy that found its way into the war on crime? Or is it an extension of the logic of urban security to the problem of permanent, or at least long term, insurgency?

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