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Marcello Di Cintio says follow Berlin's example, tear down walls

11/07/2014 05:00 EST | Updated 01/06/2015 05:59 EST
Marcello Di Cintio is disappointed that the euphoria that went along with the destruction of the Berlin Wall 25 years ago did not catch on in other parts of the world.

Not only did it not catch on, he says "walls are big business these days."  While researching his book, Walls: Travels along the Barricades, the Calgary writer spent years walking along most of the dividing walls and fences in the world and now wishes that walls would be torn down as often as they are constructed.

"The fall of the Berlin Wall did not start this spontaneous opening up of borders", says Di Cintio.  "Quite the opposite."  

He lists the Mexico-U.S. border barricade, Israel’s West Bank barrier, and the Northern Ireland peace wall, and notes, "There’s far more walls that exist around the world now than did 25 years ago."

When people tore down the Berlin Wall in November 1989, Di Cintio was in high school but he still laments not being there at such an historic moment. "What does a journalist want more than to be present for a great historical thing?"  

So the 16-year-old Di Cintio watched the news with his buddies on a small television in the school janitor's office. He says he remembers that moment as one of the last times the better nature of humanity triumphed.

Wall disease

Why put up a wall to separate people, he asks,  and then answers, "The wall signifies strength. You can see it.  In a way, it’s theatrical. The wall portrays an image of strength and power that it perhaps doesn’t actually hold.

“Walls are there to alleviate fear and also to sustain fear of the other when the sustaining of that fear is convenient for government."

While there’s many reasons why the walls go up, Di Cintio notes there are fewer reasons to tear them down.

One reason emerged after the fall of the Berlin Wall: "emotional liberation." In 1973, East German psychiatrist, Dietfried Müller-Hegemann identified a disorder he called Mauerkrankheit, or wall disease, a syndrome that includes higher rates of depression and anxiety, rape, alcoholism, more suicide attempts, and more domestic violence for people who lived in close proximity to the wall.

Di Cintio explains that the only cure for wall disease was to tear it down. "What I’ve found in my book is examples of wall disease, strains of it around the world near other barriers."

Wall disease is still an epidemic," he laments, "maybe not in Berlin anymore, but certainly wherever walls rise I found people suffering some kind of psychological pain from it."

The urge to tear down barriers

In his book, Walls, Di Cintio urges his readers to stay hopeful. The many pieces of the wall that have been dispersed to various countries around the world are meant to signify hope for a less divided world, he says.

For example, the "cracked relic of the Berlin Wall" which now stands in Montreal's World Trade Centre, "reveals that the urge to tear down barriers is a stronger impulse than the urge to build them", writes Di Cintio.

"What eventually wins out is not the crude desire to wall but the impulse to break through." That “trophy” in Montreal “reminds us of the inevitability of our better natures."

(Di Cintio reads from this section of his book in the video "Marcello di Cintio reads from Walls" linked near the top of this page.)

Do good walls make good neighbours?

 American poet Robert Frost’s famous poem, "Mending Wall,"  muses about whether or not “good fences make good neighbours.” Di Cintio suggests the poem is as relevant today as it was a century ago. "All the walls I’ve traveled to, and all the fences I’ve walked along or through, none of them made good neighbours."

"The fences and the walls, if anything," he says, "solidify animosity and they become temples to aggression and fear and paranoia, racism often."

 "The last thing they do" insists Di Cintio, "is make for good neighbours."

The irony of walls

After spending some of his last few years thinking about walls and fences and visiting many around the world, on the 25th anniversary Di Cintio sees the fall of the Berlin Wall as something of an anachronism.

"I will be thinking about how we haven’t learned much in 25 years. I’ll be regretting that we haven’t seen the other walls come down, that the euphoria we all felt in ’89, it’s unfortunate that we haven’t felt it since."

Di Cintio finds irony in the fact that as our world becomes more and more interconnected by things like economics, communication, culture,  and migration, it’s more divided by walls.

Especially in our high tech global world, he says,  "It seems ironic that it's much easier to erect a vertical slab of concrete than to actually sit down and... sign a peace document."

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