Alba Fucens is a Roman town. Unlike most Roman towns, nobody ever built anything else there, so the earth grew over it and it remained as it was. You can wander through the marketplace stalls, scuff up the dirt with your foot to see the tiled floors, hear the water still flowing in the sewers beneath the stone streets, walk through the gate of the amphitheater and see its walls rise around you. You can almost hear the crowds, cheering for your blood.
Alba Fucens lies in a valley, surrounded by blue hills. On one hill, there is the temple of Apollo, which was turned into a church in the 9th century, destroyed by an earthquake, and rebuilt.
On another hill is a medieval town, also abandoned, also a ruin. Like most little towns in this part of Italy, it is built on a hill, crumbling buildings clustered on top of each other within the circle of crumbling walls.
Alba Fucens was never destroyed, says the brochure. The inhabitants eventually abandoned it and built the nearby medieval town, the tiny walled one on the hill.
Why would they leave their beautiful stone city in the valley, with its roads and its market stalls, its fountains and its sewer system that's still working 2,000 years later?
Rome had fallen, and they weren’t safe there anymore. It took a while for the effects to work their way all the way out here, several days’ journey from Rome, high in the hills. But the world had changed.
Alba Fucens is the kind of town you can only build when you’re at peace, when you’ve been at peace for so long your mothers’ mothers have forgotten what it’s like to really be in danger. When your empire is so powerful that it’s ridiculous to believe anyone would ever attack. No one can touch us, says the city in the valley. No one is coming to save us, says the town on the hill. We can only save ourselves.
In Parable of the Sower, by Octavia Butler, eleven houses on a cul-de-sac in a middle class LA suburb called Robledo wall themselves off and try to survive as society slowly crumbles around them. A lot of fiction has taken the same sort of theme since Butler wrote it, but no one has yet done it so terrifyingly well. Our world has been destroyed by aliens, robots, natural disasters, blowing up the moon, nuclear winter, the undead. In Parable of the Sower, the world is destroyed by none of these things. The climate slowly gets worse, the government slowly gets weaker, unemployment rises, the gap between rich and poor increases, people aren’t safe in the streets, no one trusts the police. Politicians promise change. No one believes them, but still everyone thinks that things will magically get better, that they can go back to the way things were when life was good. Meanwhile, they wall themselves off and hope that the wall will save them.
This is what I know from both history and literature: walls, both literal and figurative, will not save a society, in the end. The things that topple nations don’t come from without; they come from within. Terrorism will not bring our country down, but our response to that terrorism might. Structural inequality might. Blindness to injustice might. Walls might.
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” ~Viktor Frankl.
The knee-jerk response to fear: entrench. Deny that there is anything wrong with us. The blame must lie with others: others who are less important, less moral, less intelligent, less worthy of rights, less deserving of the good life we want for us and ours. We speak of them as groups, never as individuals. We wall them out. The implication rotting behind assumptions like this is: less human. Less human than us, and the people inside our wall.
We cannot let this response win. I do not want our country to be the city in the valley: too arrogant to believe it could ever be broken. Nor do I want to run for the hills. Maybe all societies are destined to end eventually, to be nothing but naked stones in valleys; if so, all I can say is: not today.
Today, we cannot let fear and hate win.