Long, Hot Summer


Last year, I took my daughter to Chicago to look at colleges. Walking around near Lake Michigan – the ritziest part of town – we still managed to pass dozens of individuals slumped or sleeping in doorways or panhandling. Emma, who is a kind-hearted soul (at least to everyone except her father) said to me, “Dad, I like Chicago, but I don’t know if I could live in a place where there are so many homeless people. I’d feel like I had to give each of them some money, but I know I could never afford to do that.”

Our conversation turned to the question of why Chicago – like nearly every major city in the “richest and most powerful country in the history of the world” – is filled with so many homeless. I offered up the usual list of reasons: the lack of affordable housing; the massive outsourcing of industrial jobs; the lack of universal health care; an inadequate system for delivering mental health services or publicly funded drug and alcohol treatment programs (right now, waiting lists for most such treatment centers are six months to a year: I don’t know about you, but the words “addict” and “patience” do not go together in my mind). I talked about our regressive tax system, the legacy of racism, the growing disparity in income. I pointed out as well that many of the men we saw with missing limbs or obvious psychatric disorders were probably vets of one of America’s recent wars, abandoned by the nation they served as soon as victory was declared and the band music faded from memory.

And then it struck me: all of these explanations are really subheadings for one overriding explanation.

For the past 65 years – since 1941, in fact – the United States has either been at war, or frantically arming itself in anticipation of its next war. This rampant militarism can be cited either as the cause of, or a contributing factor to, every single social, economic, environmental, and political pathology we suffer from. Not just homelessness. Not just lack of healthcare, affordable housing, and mass transit. Not just our underfunded schools and crumbling infrastucture, and our growing dependence on foreign oil, not just the vulgarity and immorality that befall all societies at war, but also those developments that clearly pose a threat to the survival of democracy itself, like government secrecy and repression, and pervasive media self-censorship.

Why is it that a country like Norway, with a population and economy not much larger than Minnesota’s, can provide universal health care, free day care, a good education for all, mass transit, shorter work weeks, secure retirements, and lengthy maternity and paternity leaves while the United States cannot? Simple: Norway hasn’t misallocated its resources by spending tens of trillions of dollars on weapons systems, a huge standing army and military installations in 150 countries around the world. Why did the levees break in New Orleans? Why isn’t there money to equip our airports to detect liquid explosives? Our costly addiction to war.

Besides crumbling infrastructure, a supine press, and all the other inevitable byproducts of militarism, there is one other phenonmenon that is very germane to the long hot summer we have been enjoying in the Twin Cities.

In Minneapolis the rate of crime has risen more than 30 percent in the past year. For homicide and rape, the rate is up some 35 percent. What do those rapidly escalating crime rates have to do with America’s addiction to war? Simple. History shows that in societies at war or coming out of a period of war overall violence and violent crime go up. Sometimes way up.

Take, for example, the lawlessness of the Old West. It was not, despite our national mythology, the inevitable result of the remoteness of the terrain or the “savagery” of native resistance. After all, the western regions of Canada were just as remote and its Indians equally restive, but there were no figures comparable to iconic psychopaths like Billy the Kid or Wyatt Earp or Wild Bill Hickock roaming the streets of Saskatoon.

No, the violence of the early West was a direct result of the Civil War during which millions of American men were exposed to the brutality and mass killings of the modern battlefield. It took a generation for that wave of violence to work its way through the social system. Ditto the wave of violence and violent crime that began in the decade following the Second World War, crescendoed in the ’70s and early ’80s – boosted by the Korean and Vietnam Wars – and only began to subside during the (relatively) peaceful 1990s. Many reasons have been cited for the drop in violent crime during that decade, rising prosperity, an aging population, and a sharp uptick in the country’s inmate headcount among them. Perhaps the most important reason, however, is never mentioned. The drop in violent crime was one of the elusive “peace dividends” accruing from the end of the Cold War, which, not coincidentally, also brought about the first decrease in defense spending since the late 1940s. Even the violence commited by veterans of the first Gulf War, like Timothy McVeigh, was not enough to dent the trend, probably because that war lasted a very short time and involved few American casualties.

Which brings us to today, the post 9/11 years and the upward spiral of official violence, both real and rhetorical, spawned by the Bush Administration’s atavistic response to the attacks on New York and Washington and its use of those attacks as a pretext to push for empire abroad and brute capitalism at home.

It may seem fanciful to suggest that there is a causal relationship between the violent swagger and blatant cruelty of our president and his posse and the violence and cruelty being visited on neighborhoods around our town. But it’s not fanciful at all. Even if this administration had not worked so hard the past five years generating fear or ginning up and sustaining a war psychosis, the wars we have fought or threaten to fight would have had their inevitable spillover on the homefront. Coupled with all the other effects of our militarism cited above – crumbling infrastructure, lack of affordable housing, growing income disparity – the criminal violence of this Administration has directly contributed to the rising death toll in places like Minneapolis. We can’t slaughter people on the streets of Baghdad and Beirut without visiting some of that bloodshed on ourselves.

So, want to make our streets safer? Drastically reduce our military spending. And bring our troops home – now. Not in order to patrol the neighborhoods, but to give peace and demilitarization a chance to begin to heal the fraying social order.