From Autopia to Túnelandia (a dispatch from the Border)

More and more we live in a world of tunnels. On chunnels, smuggling tunnels, torrents, and sinkholes. With an interlude on Arcade Fire. 

— By | October 19, 2010

Gaza smuggling tunnel (image: Reuters)

More and more I feel that we live in a world of tunnels

Some evidence: the overwrought celebration surrounding the world’s longest tunnel, newly completed, in Switzerland. Also: the recent spike in illicit tunneling activity between the United States and Mexico, as reported by the New York Times.

The craziest thing about our tunnel-world (shall we say – our Tunelandia) is its mirror image quality. Above every tunnel runs a highway (kind of like the old joke about the cat-buttered-toast monorail). Just think: at the exact moment that two desperate immigrants were using a shoe-horn to tunnel from Belarus to Poland, EU passport holders were cruising through the gates into the Schengen region above them with the blink of an iris scan and the swipe of an ID card – a biometric booya, if you will.  And as drug cartels industriously burrow below Nogales and Calexico,  thousands of trucks coast across the NAFTA-highways atop those cities’ surfaces, their flatbeds laden with sneakers, tortillas, steel.

Herman Melville once wrote: In this world, shipmates, sin that pays its way can travel freely, and without passport, whereas Virtue, if a pauper, is stopped at all frontiers. I think about that quote a lot when I’m in Texas.

Highway | Tunnel

Here is a thought on the border: Where globalization has contracted distance and exploded movement, Control descends to restrict access; Where access is restricted, a tunnel will appear. “The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.”  These were the terms of the Web Wars of the early 2000s (e.g. Napster, Kazaa) – For what is a torrent but a tunnel from me to you, burrowing through the dark net beneath the Information Superhighway.

All this talk about how Arcade Fire is from Texas

Houston, to be exact, which is home to an extensive underground tunnel network and a eerie landscape of over and underpasses, toll highways built for the exclusive use of the paying rich. None of which seems to serve any function except to divorce particular streams of commerce and humanity from others.  Arcade Fire’s new album draws inspiration from the claustrophobic sprawl of Houston’s landscape, building on themes expressed in songs on its earlier Funeral album like this one:

… And if the snow buries / My neighborhood
And /  if my parents are crying
Then I’ll dig a tunnel / from my window to yours
Yea a tunnel / from my window to yours

You climb / out the chimney
And meet me in the middle / The middle of the town …

Arcade Fire – “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)”

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Beneath Gaza territory lines, smugglers herd cows through tunnels

These are tunnels that serve as lifelines during times of sanction and embargo for a kidnapped population while tanks sit atop its highways.  Other items trafficked through these underground channels (import and export) include:

  • canvas sacks full of food

    Gaza smuggling tunnel (image: AP)

  • beauty products
  • second-hand clothes
  • Israeli coffee
  • blue jeans
  • mobile phones
  • cement
  • fresh fruit (figs, lychees, mangos)
  • chickens, pigeons
  • hair gel
  • popsicle sticks
  • firearms

As covered here, here, and here.  And in this amazing piece in This American Life, featuring real-time conversation with a Gaza tunnel operator via cellphone on the trials and tribulations of his business.

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What’s happening beneath Gaza is not unlike the situation along the Southwest border between the U.S. and Mexico, where law enforcement finds more than one new illicit tunnel a month.


Some are short, narrow passageways that require those navigating them to slither. Others are long, sophisticated underground thoroughfares strung with electric cables and ventilation hoses.

One high-end tunnel found in Calexico, Calif. originated in the master bedroom of a Mexican home and extended to a garage on the American side. It had a phone line and air conditioning…

In Gaza, tunnelling has become such a critical and lucrative activity that Hamas has started taking over the trade and taxing/licensing independent tunnel owners.  I am not privy to the details of the operations conducted by the traficantes probably under my feet right now – but in light of the the cartels’ increasing institutionalization, I would wager they are working according to a similar organized profit scheme — as they have done vis-a-vis hopeful migrants.

These tunnels are passageways created by and necessitated by coercive stoppages forced into the natural flow of social commerce. They are reminders that every misery has its resistance, its stubborn will to survive – but also its petty profiteer. Gilles Deleuze once said this: the coils of a serpent are even more complex than the burrows of a molehill. What he might have meant was this: even underground, the Man will be right behind you, shouldering his way into your excavations, levying taxes & installing keycard machines, asking you for your papers.

Sometimes I think about all the tunnels under Europe

Here are the tunnels I think about, off the top of my head:

  1. the “Chunnel
  2. the new Swiss super-long-tunnel
  3. the Large Hadron Collider
  4. the “Tube,” etc.

How can one small “continent” have so many big tunnels? And apparently the EU hopes to connect all of Europe by tunnel sometime soon, starting with the Swiss supertunnel! Do they have enough earth left beneath them to support the ground they walk on? In my brain, the ground underneath Europe already looks like this:

actually a visualization of a leafcutting ant colony structure (image: Carol LaFayette, Texas A&M)

But with more water! Hugh Holub, former public works director in Nogales, Arizona wrote about the precarious vertigo of his superterranean city: “There is a joke in Nogales that someday its entire downtown will collapse into a giant sinkhole due to the many drug tunnels in the city.” And indeed tunnels in Nogales have been discovered because a bus abruptly sinks into pavement where digging has weakened the road.

One of these days Europe will wake up in the morning and find that this has happened to Switzerland overnight:

Guatemala City sinkhole, circa June 2010

Leaving only the highways and bridges standing, suspended from nothing, traffic(k)less.

Or before then all our highways will collapse from the weight of our commerce or a lack of subjacent support. And those who were commuters will have to join their smuggler step-brethren to live in the tunnels, with nothing but the extralegal economy and our collective proto-civilization spirituality to build upon. Like some post-apocalyptic ninja turtles.

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