From the Series: Speaking Volumes
My eyes follow the words forming, letter by letter, but my shoulders, too, are responding. They give a slight, involuntary twist as I seem to feel, once again, the metal tips piercing my clothing. I am in the past, a doctoral student wriggling beneath a barbed-wire fence at a remote location along the U.S.–Mexico border. I freeze as the sharp barbs catch me, silently chastising myself for my stupidity. The self-blame is vigorous. It’s my fault. It’s by my choice that I’m caught. Panic sets in. What if my companions don’t miss me? What if I’m left here alone? I slowly raise my head and tentatively inch forward, but another barb catches my hair, reminding me that I am indeed entangled and that my freedom will come at a cost.
Luckily for me, a couple Sanctuary activists have remained nearby. So I lie utterly still, fight off the wave of panic, and wait for help. With intimate knowledge of the border’s metal and steel, the activists have lingered to assist the straggler in their midst. In the seconds it takes to unentangle me, the fence’s teeth graze the tender skin between my shoulder blades—distilling heterogeneous space and the volumetric into a single, sharp point. Barb not only teaches that surfaces align in particular ways at this border, but offers moral instruction as well. Barbed wire will puncture, stab, slice, or perforate any flesh, inflicting pain proportional to the degree of struggle. Yet this comes with an enduring justification—it has been my foolishness, my decision to transgress, which is responsible for any and all wounds.
In his history of barbed wire, Reviel Netz (2004, xiii) suggests that it is in the corporeal that we find the quintessential locus of barb. “Barbed wire,” he writes, takes place “precisely at the level of flesh.”
Mahzer Ali, an Iranian asylum seeker, would likely agree. On February 10, 2002, he cast himself onto the razor wire encircling the now defunct Woomera Immigration Removal and Processing Center in Australia. Protesting the crowding of 1,500 detainees in a space designed for 400, as well as the inhumane treatment of children, Ali’s injuries were horrific. Ironically, to save his life, doctors had to rely on surgical wire to sew him back together (Krell 2002).
Barbed wire is a nineteenth-century invention, rooted in the landscapes of the American Southwest. An 1882 advertisement reassures prospective buyers that barbed-wire fencing will not injure animals—only give them a warning prick (Dove 1972). Nevertheless, it took a decade for the product to take off, mainly because it was perceived as vicious. Its relative ease of installation, however, soon made it appealing, especially for cattle ranchers. Barbed-wire fencing was subsequently used to enclose large tracts of land, in the process restricting access to precious water resources and effectively interning Native Americans. By the turn of the century, the British were using it extensively in their Boer incarceration camps. Decades later it had become associated with twentieth-century war-torn landscapes, including the grisly no-man’s-lands of the First World War and the notorious death camps of Stalin and Hitler.
Barbed wire is still commonly seen at jails, stockyards, and abattoirs, and is increasingly used as so-called security fencing at international borders. In fact, it is a proliferating technology for restricting the movements of humans and nonhumans alike. When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, there were twelve fortified borders internationally; today, there are more than sixty-five.
It is August 2015. Amid a heightening refugee crisis in Europe, I come across photographs in the British newspaper the Daily Mail, showing Syrian asylum-seekers crawling under razor wire at the Hungary–Serbia border. In one sequence a terrified girl screams as the barbed wire seizes her hair. My skin cringes and huddles closer to the bone as I instantly recognize her fear. She is eventually rescued by a woman (her mother?) and then carried to safety by a young man. Further down the page, another toddler crawls through a gap in the same fence, curiosity written on her features. I catch my breath, steeling myself for the next image, but she evades injury from the razor wire and stands unscathed with a soft, beguiling smile. The grim expressions of adults navigating their families across this vicious product frame these contrasting entanglements, one child experiencing razor wire as terror and the other as almost a game. Although successfully breached by the two children, barbed wire’s malice—its ease and speed of installation, its promise to tear unsuspecting and incautious flesh—is impossible to evade.
A few days later, I come across more photographs of Europe’s new security fencing, but these show the corpse of a red deer severely mutilated after becoming entangled in wire. The website explains that this is a growing phenomenon. Despite the graphic nature of the images, I peer closer. The animal’s jaws are horribly bloodied, shredded as a result of its desperate attempts to bite through the wire. Again my skin cringes and huddles closer to the bone as I recognize a cruel death. Deer, bears, wolves, lynx, humans, air, fur, skin, bodies that bleed—barbed wire has been indifferent, as if inoculated to the suffering it wreaks. It has cut equally across social and ecological flows, inured to the shrieks of flesh, human and nonhuman alike.
“All those wounds are self-inflicted,” the barb interrupts, once again infuriating me with its smug self-justification.
“But someone decided to put it there, someone knowing its effects.” My flesh, the girl’s hair, the deer’s bloodied jaws—we all wail at it.
“Entanglement can be easily installed,” urges a manufacturer, whose website offers thirteen different kinds of barbed wire.
“It should be banned,” my skin mutters back.
Dove, Allan B. 1972. Steel Wire Handbook, Volume Three. Branford, Conn.: Wire Association.
Krell, Alan. 2002. The Devil’s Rope: A Cultural History of Barbed Wire. London: Reaktion.
Netz, Reviel. 2004. Barbed Wire: An Ecology of Modernity. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press.