War diverts us from old woes

Dan Rodricks

February 13, 1991|By Dan Rodricks

Just before the war started, the talk of the town was murder. Baltimore broke the 300 mark for homicides in 1990. Remember? Just before President Bush launched the war to end the "brutal aggression, the rape and pillage" of Kuwait, violent crime was the focus of public attention in good ole Baltimore. Right here. Right under our noses.

The ministers marched in the streets again, and their flocks joined them. The mayor locked arms with the faithful and they prayed and demanded action. The breaking of the 300 mark in the waning days of 1990 made an entire city shudder. It was a stinging reminder, right in the middle of holiday season, that Baltimore's problems are fierce. This tough, old city is still bleeding, still crying for a break.

I take the kid who kills another kid in a Baltimore street, and I see 100 problems. The murder is the exclamation point at the end of a long scream that started years ago, back when the city started sagging and the political landscape changed. It's not just the kid. Not just the violence. It's the environment of inner-city life, the aura of decline and waste. Deep inside the city, in the alleys and the rowhouses where the poorest people in the state of Maryland try to scratch out a life, the problems have been fermenting for years.

We all know what they are, too. The last two periods of economic growth in this country left the cities behind. Manufacturing jobs disappeared. So did the middle class. Political power shifted to the suburbs and rural areas. The cities declined. One thing that kept them from the edge of disaster was the federal government.

But things changed. Back in the 1970s, Baltimore got about a quarter of its operating budget from the federal government. Special grants helped redevelopment efforts. A lot of William Donald Schaefer's achievements as mayor had the backing of a national leadership that recognized the need to keep the cities vital. It was a leadership that realized the nation's most distressing human problems were concentrated in cities.

Then came the 1980s.

The federal government, under a leadership that discerned little political gain from support of cities, started slashing away. By 1990, about 10 percent of Baltimore's operating budget came from the federal government. Almost every area of human need -- education, job training, health care (an infant mortality rate of 17.8 deaths per 1,000 births), housing (35,000 on the waiting list for public housing), community development -- suffers today from severe underfunding. This retreat was sounded at a time when Baltimore was moving forward, propelled by special federal programs. And it occurred during the largest peacetime military buildup in history.

While the federal government was cutting money for housing in Baltimore and other cities, it was throwing billions into the last big military spending orgy of the Cold War. Today the kids in Baltimore might be getting a mediocre public education, but at least we have plenty of "smart bombs" to drop on the Iraqis. We might have a serious problem with male high school dropouts falling into the drug trade and the brutal crime that goes with it, but at least we have enough weapons and troops to combat the "brutal aggression" in the Persian Gulf.

Just when mayors like Kurt L. Schmoke were dreaming of ways to spend money that might have been reaped through the so-called "peace dividend," resulting from the end of the arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. Within a few days, Bush was proclaiming him the new Hitler and offering the U.S. as lead enforcer for the New World Order.

It's an expensive undertaking. But with approximately $36 billion pledged from coalition nations, the U.S. might only end up footing about $15 billion for the war. (If, of course, the war only lasts about two months.)

More importantly, it's a popular war -- at least back here, 6,000 miles from the bombing raids. The polls show support at about 80 to 85 percent. Yellow ribbons and flags are everywhere. The war has served as a tremendous rallying point for the nation, the sort of inspiring display of resources and manpower we seem to stage about once a generation. "So far, so good," our resolute president tells us. The air attacks are precise and conclusive, the generals say. Casualties are low. The nation is pumped, confident of victory, buoyed by a sense of high moral purpose. The war has our full attention.

If not for the war, we might be talking about the recession, or the savings and loan bailout. Or we might be talking about all those homicides on the streets of Baltimore again.

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