American taxpayers have spent trillions building bridges in Iraq and Afghanistan while our own are dilapidated. We are building sewer treatment facilities in cities all over the world, but our own can’t withstand a major flood. Our trains are rolling pieces of junk, a government monopoly called Amtrak, whose main goal appears to be a pension delivery system for unionized government workers instead of the efficient transport of passengers and cargo. Our public education system, once the envy of the world, has degenerated into a feeder system for our courts and prisons. (We rank 32nd in math proficiency and 29th in science – not the results one would expect from the billions we squander on public education.)
The myriad of infrastructure problems are most clearly manifest in our formerly great American cities. There were times, not too long ago, when trolleys and trams, subways and buses traveled an urban landscape safely delivering workers to jobs, materials to factories and goods and services to markets. No longer, or not to the extent needed to make them the vibrant places of working and living that they were several generations ago. They have devolved into large swaths of subsistence living, more reminiscent of internment camps than sections of our once great American cities.
We as Americans have developed a huge vocabulary of words to describe the abandoned and ignored parts of our formerly great cities. As Americans we are culturally trained to speak in euphemisms about these parts of our cities, so as to not pierce the delicate social veil that covers them.
The slums of our nation’s capital are routinely avoided by the intelligentsia commuting to work at some government agency designed to alleviate poverty. People circumnavigate around the “undesirable” parts of the city. Most taxpayers who cared enough to actually visit these no-man’s-lands of “urban blight” hurriedly roll up the windows and lock the car doors having entered the forbidden zone. Stores, if there are any, are decorated not in the faux stained glass of a fake “shopping district” or “Centre,” but in thick sheets of bulletproof resins. Purchases are made by placing money on a rotating bulletproof aquarium, where customers are peered at suspiciously, like a dangerous fish.
Drug abuse, rampant public intoxication, hand-to-hand drugs sales and violence – the brutal violence that permeates every street, alley and corner, exists. A brand of street justice is not only tolerated but extolled in our public culture as “knowing the streets” and absorbed in our violent collective consciousness through movies, music and the ubiquitous Grand Theft Auto video game franchise, where rich suburban folk can join in on the “inner city fun,” such as stealing cars, running prostitutes, and killing rivals.
The police patrol with no realistic effort to stop the mayhem, but more of a concerted effort to contain it, to keep it from spilling over the “gentrified” or “rehabbed” areas. If you are going to shoot someone in the head point blank over an IPod, don’t do it in front of the new Whole Foods: that will bring down major heat. Kill whomever you want, across the street, in the “hood.”
We, as Americans, call these areas “the bad part of town”; and depending on where such an area is located relative to the central business district, it would be called the East-side of Los Angeles, the South-side of Chicago, the Southeast part of Washington DC, the West-side of Baltimore; and so on it goes, with each city publicly designating the area in which it will tolerate lawlessness and violence.
Yet, while our cities rot from within, and our tax dollars are literally flown to Iraq on pallets and distributed to this warlord or that, the children in our cities are immersed in stupefying violence from which there is no escape: not at home, not at school, not at the playground. And when they are inexorability killed or kill someone, we are shocked. Shocked that these children, raising themselves on the mean streets, like feral cats, were not protected by the police, their drug-addled parents, or the social workers.
We can send $19 billion to the government in Columbia to launch a war on drugs, but be can’t spend the same amount getting the low level drug addicts clean and sober. We can buy million-dollar helicopters bristling with the latest offering from our military merchants, but we have no money for drug or alcohol treatment other than a very expensive hitch in the county lockup. We have billions to spread around on our failed War on Drugs, but no money to provide a safe home, a decent meal or a great education to a child whose only error was being born to parents who have been long ago consumed by the mean streets of our once fair cities.
And so it goes; we cannot have a great country if each of the underlying parts are rotting internally. While our money is sent overseas to help line the pockets of our Government’s friends and allies, our problems here are papered over with this or that government program, government housing or job-training program, most of which have accelerated our precipitous post World War II decline
If we are going to engage in “nation-building,” why not start in Detroit, or Baltimore, Milwaukee or Cleveland? The children of America should be treated to the same quality of life with our tax dollars as the children in Hamid Karzai’s clan.
Joseph A. Scalia writes from Las Vegas where he has practiced law for 20 years. He hold a BA in Economics from the University of Maryland College Park and a JD from the University of Baltimore School of Law.