Senate debating crime bill dribbles into irrelevance

August 25, 1994|By MICHAEL OLESKER

As this is written, the U.S. Senate diddles with a $30 billion crime package thought to be flawed because, among other things, it includes money for playground basketball as a preventive measure, when everybody knows the proper procedure with wayward kids is to fire several warning shots through their heads.

Maybe the Senate reaches definitive wisdom on this crime bill one day soon, but for the purposes of today's message, who RTC cares? Whatever spending decision Washington finally reaches, the political hypocrisy lasts forever.

You want to talk money, let's talk money. The crime bill originally called for about $7 billion in so-called prevention money, which included the likes of nighttime basketball leagues in lieu of having kids wander the streets. Naturally, only a small piece of the $7 billion would go for basketball, but the idea of ballgames becomes a convenient metaphor for waste, at least in the minds of Republican lawmakers and radio talk show hosts and other people who would sooner build more prisons than perhaps steer a kid away from a life leading to prison.

These are, in large part, the same people whose idea of important spending is the building of missile systems to protect America. National defense, this is called. Defense against what, we're never exactly sure: All those Cubans washing up on the shores of Florida, perhaps? Another outbreak in Grenada, maybe? Those Sandinista hordes?

When last seen, the U.S. defense budget was $260 billion. The figure comes from the Brookings Institution, which notes that the United States is now spending "more for national security than the rest of the world combined."

Are you listening, Bill Clinton? This is a man whose arrival was cheered in cities like Baltimore, whose citizens lived through 12 years of White House Republicans kissing us off and thought we were now witnessing the coming of a new day.

Wasn't that Clinton out there in West Baltimore, finding urban inspiration as he walked through Sandtown-Winchester with Mayor Schmoke? Wasn't it Clinton who would bring us the so-called peace dividend George Bush ignored after communism imploded?

Well, yeah, but . . .

But it's still Clinton's $260 billion defense budget, which everybody forgets in the current atmosphere while they diddle over $7 billion to stop crime before it happens. Do such preventive programs actually work? Well, it's tough to say, since nobody has yet figured how to measure the absence of something.

Thus, we find the convenient ridiculing of money for the likes of preventive basketball. But, to ridicule the preventive efforts of the defense industry is to invite the questioning of one's patriotism, even if it means pointing out the massive amounts the Pentagon subsidizes private industry to produce military goods we no longer need with money we no longer have.

Listen: Welfare is welfare. In effect, these industries have become wards of the state, far beyond the dreaming of any welfare mother with five kids, whether or not the kids are playing in a nighttime basketball league.

With this in mind, it was lovely to visit the Cloverdale playground yesterday, on Druid Hill Avenue across from the old streetcar barn, where kids shot a basketball in the sunlight. You can drive past the same court late into the night, though, and the scene's the same: kids with energy to burn, some of them without much direction, some of them with nobody home to give much guidance, and the neighborhood full of the various urban temptations, and still they're out there playing ball.

Would it be nicer if they were sitting in a library, reading Shakespeare? Yeah, but we had to close some of the libraries. Would it be nicer if they were studying computers? Yeah, but the public schools are a little short of computer money.

So the crime bill offers various prevention programs, one of which happens to be basketball, and this gives fits to people who see it as the very essence of wimpy, soft-headed liberal thinking.

It's an excuse to block the crime bill. The cities fester, and Washington diddles. Better to build missile systems. We're not certain who's threatening us out there, but it's gotta be somebody. The defense people who get our money keep telling us so. These guys need to loosen up, maybe play a little basketball.

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