IN TODAY'S Forum, reader Loretta Cryor-Tazwell asks TC question every American ought to ponder: "Wouldn't it be wonderful if U.S. businesses reconstructed our devastated American cities while they are constructing Kuwait?"
Obviously there is money to be made in the reconstruction of war-devastated Kuwait. That is why American companies are rushing to sign contracts with the Kuwaiti government and why Gov. William Donald Schaefer visited the emirate last week to drum up business for Maryland firms.
And yet there is an implicit irony in Cryor-Tazwell's question: Why is it more profitable to rebuild distant Kuwait than undertake the reconstruction of, say, a Newark, N.J., or Baltimore, Md.? Certainly there are areas in both cities, and in a hundred others like them across America, where people live daily under conditions not much better than those of the war-ravaged communities of the Persian Gulf.
An exaggeration? No less an authority than President George Bush, in a speech last week touting his administration's anti-crime bill, said that in some neighborhoods in the nation's decaying inner cities, a young man's chances of being killed far exceeded the odds of his becoming a casualty in the Persian gulf. And Bush wasn't exaggerating.
Between August, 1990 and March, 1991, for example, just over 300 Americans died of all causes during the course of military operations in the gulf. Over that same period more than twelve thousand Americans died as a result of violent crime at home. Put another way, for every military death in the gulf from all causes, there were approximately 40 civilian deaths at home as a direct result of violent crime.
Elsewhere in today's Forum, reader Wendell C. Harsanyi suggests that the reason for the breakdown of order in our most crime-ridden neighborhoods is a lack of resolve to punish criminals severely. It is a premise also adopted by President Bush, whose anti-crime package calls for, among other things, stiff mandatory sentences for violent offenders, a relaxation of the so-called "exclusionary rule," which prohibits prosecutors from introducing illegally obtained evidence in court, and extending the death penalty to cover a broader range of offenses.
Cracking down on crime sounds good to most Americans -- so good, in fact, that it often serves as a substitute for thinking about the kind of reconstruction of inner-city neighborhoods that would actually make a difference in crime rates. Make no mistake: The kind of get-tough approach Bush is proposing would have little effect on the number of crimes committed or the terrible toll violent crime exacts from society.
Recall that America already incarcerates a larger proportion of its population than any other nation on Earth, including the Soviet Union and South Africa. The courts and prisons are overflowing with offenders, yet crime rates continue to rise. If the present trend continues, we could lock up increasing numbers of offenders at ever faster rates and still run out of prison space long before we ran out of offenders.
If we are truly to make progress in cutting crime, we must attack the underlying conditions that breed crime -- poverty, poor schools, unemployment. It has been said rightly that not all poor people are criminals, but all criminals are poor.
In fact, the biggest difference between the U.S. and the other industrialized nations of the world, which have significantly lower crime rates than ours, is that those governments deliberately set out to make full employment a goal of their national economic policies. Only a generation ago 6 percent unemployment was viewed as an unmitigated catastrophe by the Eisenhower administration. Today 6 percent unemployment seems perfectly normal.
What is needed is a national full employment policy that ensures that everyone who wants to work can find a job at decent wages. That would do more to reduce crime than a thousand new prison beds.
The roads, bridges, public buildings and water systems of communities across America are crumbling. Conservation efforts are badly needed to restore the beauty of our environment. All these are tasks worthy of federal support, reconstruction projects that would provide meaningful employment to hundreds of thousands of idle workers just as Franklin Rossevelt's "New Deal" programs rescued millions from destitution in the 1930s.
This is where government policy can make a difference. But will our leaders have wisdom to see that investing in the reconstruction of our nation's cities can be at least as profitable as investing in the rebuilding of Kuwait? To borrow a line from reader Cryor-Tazwell's letter, wouldn't it be wonderful if they did?