Commentary: We need a selectively permeable membrane, not a wall

FILE - In this Dec. 10, 2018, file photo, people look on from the Mexican side, left, as U.S. Border Patrol agents on the other side of the U.S. border wall in San Diego prepare for the arrival of hundreds of pro-migration protestors, seen from Tijuana, Mexico. A relentless stream of U.S. policy shifts in 2018 has amounted to one of the boldest attacks on all types of immigration that the country has ever seen. Some see it as a tug-of-war between foundational national ideals and a fight for a new path forward led by President Donald Trump. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell, File)

What do we know about walls? They’re great for hanging pictures on. They’re great for having a place to put the roof of a house. How are they for security?

Well, the most famous wall in the world is the Great Wall of China, built over a period of 600 years beginning in the 7th century and reaching its greatest fortifications during the Ming Dynasty of the 14th century. It never actually stopped raids across it, and was completely breached in 1644.

Then there is the “Western Wall,” the last surviving wall of the Temple in Jerusalem. For any of you who have been fortunate enough to see it, it is a great, imposing wall. But it, too, failed to provide security.

In our own times, we had the Berlin Wall, built in 1961 to “protect” East German ideology and prevent East Germans from escaping to the West. It never fully accomplished its goals and was torn down less than 30 years later, in 1989.

Here in Utah, we have realized that walls have problems, even “walls” like I-80 through Parley’s Canyon. Walls block migration patterns of animals, threatening their existence. Because of this, we have gone to considerable expense to construct massive land bridges over I-80 that will allow free movement of migratory animals like deer and elk.

We are not alone. In 2004, the countries of southern Africa — recognizing that their national borders were threatening migratory animals, causing mass starvation — tore down their fences to establish the 6 million-acre “Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park.”

As a physician, I have been trained in the ingenious evolution of our human bodies to include “selectively permeable membranes.” With the “blood-brain barrier,” the brain allows what it needs to get in, and keeps what is not good for it out. The intestines use selectively permeable membranes to absorb nutrients and keep out waste. The kidneys use selectively permeable membranes to filter out wastes from the blood. Even our skin allows sweat to leave and lotions and topical medicines to get in. We do not have walls in the human body. Walls would be deadly.

Similarly, for the security of our country, we need selectively permeable membranes, not walls. Just as our bodies did not evolve these overnight, we as a society, will need a lot of brainstorming and hard work to determine what will work best. We only know that it’s not a wall.

A wall across our southern border tears up fragile landscape just to be built, threatens animal species that need to migrate and already are suffering from habitat loss. Why even in The Salt Lake Tribune, there is a front page story of how building the wall may “crush” the National Butterfly Sanctuary, not only threatening species but costing local counties $450 million dollars in environmental tourism.

Despite all this, Trump is so in love with his dream of a wall that he has shut down the government because Congress won’t give him $5 billion for it. (Arguably, Trump would like to shut down the government permanently and establish a dictatorship, but that’s a subject for another story.)

In 1987, President Ronald Reagan said in a speech at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, "In the West today, we see a free world that has achieved a level of prosperity and well-being unprecedented in all human history. ... We believe that freedom and security go together. ... Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

Now we need the ghost of Ronald Reagan to come to Washington, and say, “Mr. Trump, in the interests of freedom, security and prosperity, do not build this wall!"

Michael A. Kalm

Michael A. Kalm, M.D. is a psychiatrist in private practice in Utah. He is well versed in the “selectively permeable membrane” that separates and connects brain, mind and soul.