Barbed Wire: From Cattle Breeding to Human Segregation

El alambre de púas es barato, resistente, fácil de transportar e instalar —en resumen, muy eficiente
Barbed wire is cheap, easily transported, and installed — in summary, very efficient. (

EspañolI’d like to warn readers that, in this short text — through which I return to my original stance on border walls — my intent is not to ignite controversy or to be opportunist, but rather to provoke reflection. It is to elevate our imagination, wake dormant sensibilities, and bring those realities we consider far from ours closer. Instead of elaborating an opinion, this time I will leave the text free of personal commentary so that each reader can come up with his own conclusions.

Back in 2006, US Senator Steve King (R-IA) — the same senator who recently compared the fences on the US-Mexico border with the Great Wall of China — presented his peers with his own design for a border wall. This innovative project included, among various planned improvements, the installation of electrified barbed wire at the top, which would discourage trespassers with an electric shock. According to King’s own words, cattle breeding had proved the efficiency of such a method.

Herman Cain, former presidential candidate for the Republican Party, was very enthusiastic about lethal electrified barbed wire. His border wall would be 20 feet high with barbed wire on top. However, a warning would show: “risk of death.” Cain was convinced about using all necessary means: “If we have to put troops with firearms, we can do that.”

Raviel Netz chronicles in his book, Barbed Wire: An Ecology of Modernity, how in 1876, shortly after barbed wire was patented, a salesman with great marketing wit encased a couple of bulls behind a small fenced space. He then proceeded to provoke the animals, which in turn started to push against the fence. The spikes tore their bodies, further inflaming the bulls. Finally, when the pain and bleeding became unbearable, the animals kept their distance from the fence and abandoned their intentions of escaping it. This new tool proved horribly successful and has remained until today.

A few years after this demonstration, in 1880, one of the largest barbed-wire producers in Massachusetts, Washburn & Moen Manufacturing Company, launched an advertising campaign to highlight the fencing and demarkation qualities of their product. According to Allan Krell’s book entitled The Devil’s Rope, this company promoted the advantages of barbed wire with the following claim:

Every man who builds a fence, does so, primarily, for his own greater enjoyment in his own lands, and the sense of better security in their exclusive possession enables him to protect his own improvements. In no part of the world, where the people have risen above the condition of the wandering savage, does the benefit of fencing fail to be understood and appreciated so soon as the inhabitants begin improvement and cultivation of land, and the establishment of home life.

Barbed wire, since its inception, has been incredibly successful, cheap, resistant, easily transported, and installed — in summary, very efficient. The British used it in the first concentration camps during the Boer Wars; later, barbed wire protected frontiers during the two World Wars; and it wrapped the Nazi concentration camps and was part of the landscape at the Soviet Gulags. Today, it causes pain and scars at international borders.

Felani Khatun hung for five hours and bled to death after being shot on the India-Bangladesh border
Felani Khatun hung for five hours and bled to death after being shot on the India-Bangladesh border. (@deep_anchor)

Just as Marcello di Cintio noted in January 2011, barbed wire between India and Bangladesh took its toll on the body of Felani Khatun. The adolescent woman was crossing the Indian borders accompanied by her father. She wore a special dress, and on the other side, in Bangladesh, her fiance was waiting for her.

Once at the top of the fence, however, her dress caught in the barbed wire. Felani screamed and attracted the attention of guards who did not miss with their shots. She did not die immediately, but bled to death, deprived of any medical attention. Her body, in her red and blue dress, remained suspended by the barbed wire for the next five hours.

Manuals that explain to animal breeders how to place barbed wire fences and what voltage they should set, advise one to first consider which type of animals one is handling. Each animal has different characteristics and abilities; goats are even able to ride on top of each other to jump over an obstacle.

But regardless of the specifics of the animal, this type of fencing is considered a mental obstacle, as opposed to physical and material. An animal that experiences pain and unpleasant feelings does not usually touch the wire again. It learns.

Nevertheless, we — human beings — are different. Obstacles, walls, and barbed wire can hurt, cut, and even kill us, yet what we learn is not to give up and surrender, rather the opposite. There is something essentially human that we can see throughout history again and again: the desire for freedom and to overcome, both material and metaphorical walls.

Translated by Pablo Schollaert and Adam Dubove.

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