Finding America at history’s crossroads

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Can you feel it? The social foundation of America is trembling.

JUST BEFORE CHRISTMAS, on Dec. 23, prosecutors believe a drug deal went bad and a 16-year-old Beloiter, Savion Latimer, was shot to death near a West Side park. Zachary E. Moen, 18, was shot and wounded and has been charged, at this time, with drug and gun offenses.

Early Sunday — the wee hours of Jan. 1 after New Year’s Eve — four people were shot, one fatally, at Rockford’s once top-shelf Cliffbreakers Riverside Hotel & Conference Center. Police say a big fight had broken out in a hotel hallway before several people fired shots.

Meanwhile, Chicago closed out a bloody year that seemed more reminiscent of the days of Al Capone. There were 762 murders in 2016 — more than New York City and Los Angeles combined — and so many non-fatal shootings it’s hard to keep track. Overwhelmed police blame gangs and drugs and easy access to weapons.

RAILING AGAINST VIOLENCE is like cheering for moms and apple pie. It feels good but that’s about all it accomplishes.

What’s happening in our nation’s cities is beyond talk. And it’s not happening in isolation.

For some time now we have been writing about a breakdown in society, primarily as it applies to public school systems. Citizens are upset with painfully disappointing numbers reflected in academics — test scores that show minimal competence among large numbers of students and a continuing inability to close the racial achievement gap.

People want to know why teachers and administrators haven’t fixed the problem. We’ll bet citizens in urban areas from one end of the country to the other are asking the same thing.

Truth is, most Americans instinctively know the answer.

THE SAME FACTORS involved in educational challenges are at work in the violence plaguing U.S. cities. For the most part neither the failing students nor the gun-wielding criminals come from good neighborhoods or affluent families, where comfort and privilege are inherited advantages.

Instead, they likely come from poor neighborhoods and may have grown up in broken homes, lacking role models or encouragement to learn and succeed. Criminal behavior — perhaps even incarcerated family members — is all around them. Material comforts are few, discipline often is lacking and the temptation of the streets is strong.

Meanwhile, society whiffs when it comes to successful strategies for combatting these situations. It’s easy to hire teachers and then blame them. It’s easy to sit in a recliner with the paper in hand and cast judgements on the parade of offenders’ mug shots we publish. It’s even easy to give a few bucks to charity and step away with a sense of having done one’s part.

NEWS FLASH: NONE of that is working. If money could fix it the trillions of dollars spent over decades on social welfare programs would have done so. If teachers could fix it, even here in Beloit, the nearly hundred million dollars spent annually by local schools would have managed the problem. If police could fix it and bring order there wouldn’t be gunshots echoing across the night.

Beloiters need not hang their heads in shame. It’s happening in Rockford. In Chicago. All over urban America.

We believe two big factors drove the rage voters put on display in the recent election. First, there’s an economy that is not working for most people. And second, people want law and order restored.

There’s a correlation to those factors. The best social welfare program is a good job. Lack of good jobs, paired with collapse of family life and support, has created a permanent, roiling underclass that has taken its dysfunction, anger and violence to the streets. The lead in the air is proof positive everyone is at risk.

UNTIL FAMILY LIFE can be healed, until discipline and morality in upbringing can be restored, until economic opportunity is more widely dispersed, the streets will be disruptive and dangerous places. Families are failing and the bad behavior of individuals is the result. The social safety net may be compassionate, but it clearly is not the solution to this problem.

How serious is it?

Throughout history great civilizations have crumbled from within long before they became easy pickings for external enemies.

Arguably, America finds itself standing at that crossroads.

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