On London Burning: Radio Essay for August 13, 2011

It has been a memorable week to be an American. Credit downgrades, incredible and unpredictable financial volatility on Wall Street and a Republican candidate debate featuring 8 Presidential hopefuls. And there may be 3 or 4 more waiting in the wings. That would be interesting enough to talk about were it not for the other story appearing in every newspaper and television station in the world.

London is burning.

We saw the images on television of rioting and looting; of city blocks ablaze and of people leaping from burning building perches into the arms of strangers below; of seeming Samaritans who turn out to be villains in disguise. We saw this historically most civil of societies disintegrate before our very eyes as London mobs took control of the streets. And those riots spread to Cardiff and Nottingham and Manchester. I travel to Manchester frequently. I cannot fathom it. That is just this past week. We saw it in Greece, too, earlier this year.

“You can’t start a fire without a spark,” the Springsteen song goes. Every spark seems to be different but if there is a common source in this civil discontent, this unlawful rioting and mayhem, it stems from government austerity and the perceived disruption of the flow of entitlement money.

So, the obvious question that comes to my mind is this: Can this happen here in America? I fear the answer is “Yes.” You don’t have to believe me. Listen to the results of this Rasmussen poll from Friday. Forty eight percent of Americans, nearly half, think that cuts in government spending will lead to violence in these United States. Exploring the results further, it appears that younger adults, those under 50, see a higher likelihood than those who are older. In other words, those who might be drawn to violence believe it to be more possible.

Hang in there, it gets more interesting. More people think that cuts in spending will trigger violence than would tax increases. Sounds like a mere statistic until you peel back the layers of the onion. Those who pay taxes, only 50% of us, might protest (witness the Tea Party movement) but would hardly consider setting city blocks on fire. Besides, we’re too busy working. On the other hand, cuts in spending, read entitlements, could bring out to the street those who have skin in the game and time on their hands. We might take away some of which they have grown to expect for merely living in America. And this is what scares me. This is where we look an awful lot like our ancestors across the Atlantic Ocean.

It has happened before in America, this mindless violence. Pick any major American city in the late 1960’s or Los Angeles in the 1990’s. The inner cities go up first and local residents and shop owners are the earliest to be penalized. Their hard labor and earnest endeavor go up in smoke in the first wave. I fear that this violence this time would not stop in the cities. It would spread, perhaps incited by others on the entitlement and government spending gravy train, into the urban suburbs and perhaps into a street near you.

Here is what gets me. The social activists among us, the progressives, tend to look at Europe as if it is the epitome of social responsibility; that the European social safety net that has been constructed is a vibrant model that we should emulate here. The fact is, Europe, with a few exceptions, is a failing continent. They are failing in controlling debt, they are failing in sustainable social expenditure, and they are failing as world power brokers. They are failing in relevance. So why does this administration seek to emulate the path that they in Europe have embarked upon? It makes no sense.

So, is the next logical import street violence and rioting? Is this to be our destiny? I pray not. But we Americans are watching a tennis match between the two parties in Congress with the President acting as the net judge. We must get in the game. The debt compromise was a terrible compromise. Wait until Thanksgiving when the Super Committee on debt reduction will be forced to report out. They will have nothing to show for whatever effort they put in. The Democrats will dig in their heels on tax increases and the Republicans will dig in theirs over spending cuts. The only possible outcome will be across the board spending cuts in Medicare and Defense spending and an inexorable march to November 2012.

This is not leadership, this is not stewardship: this is cowardice. Is there a leader among us who, someday, might be commemorated as were our founders or great crisis leaders have been in legend and song and verse? This is a leadership moment, a teachable moment, in the history of our country. We are rapidly reaching a turning point. Dare I say a burning point? The direction we choose will determine, in large measure, whether America burns next.

Press on.

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