Chaos in the City

Who’s in Charge?

It’s an age-old summer ritual in American cities: Kids open fire hydrants to play in the water—only to have the hydrants closed by stern firefighters.

But this year in New York City, says John Leo in a recent column, the familiar ritual took a sinister turn. In some neighborhoods, youngsters attacked the firefighters, throwing rocks and bottles.

The problem grew so severe that the city government ordered the firefighters to back off when they encounter belligerent kids.

But what exactly does that solve? By leaving the troublemakers in control of the streets, the city’s policy teaches youngsters that if they’re obnoxious enough, authorities will back down; that if they fight and throw things, they can have their own way.

This is a sure path to anarchy. As John Leo puts it, “Cities are haunted by the fear that no one is really in charge”—that the government can’t or won’t keep basic civic order.

New York City is not the only place where this is happening. In cities across the nation there are areas so dangerous that postal carriers refuse to enter. So dangerous that police officers no longer walk the beat but cruise the neighborhood behind the locked doors of their patrol cars.

This ought to set off all our mental alarm bells. If local governments surrender our streets, in time entire cities will be ruled by the law of the jungle. Which, in turn, could trigger a tide of vigilante justice. It’s already happening in Brazil, where suspected criminals have been attacked and even killed by angry mobs.

But since mob action itself degenerates quickly into lawlessness, vigilante action will trigger a counter-reaction: military control. The government will call out the National Guard to police the streets.

You say it can’t happen here? It already has. In Puerto Rico today, troops in camouflage uniforms patrol the beaches, M-16s in hand as they weave through crowds of children playing in the sand. This is not Lebanon, mind you; it’s an American territory.

The bible teaches that the primary task of government is to maintain civic order. As Paul says in Romans 13, the purpose of government is to commend those who do right and punish those who do wrong—to keep public order.

But in America these days we ask the government to take on all sorts of additional tasks: to conduct surveys, subsidize the arts, mandate ethnic policy, and even police gender relations in the workplace.

As a result, the government is spread too thin. The state is overextended into so many social engineering projects that it no longer has the resources to attend to its primary task of keeping our streets safe.

The only way to turn things around is for you and me to stop expecting government to supply a vast array of services—and to start pressing it to protect our streets. A government asked to do too much ends up failing in its primary task. And if chaos prevails in our streets, eventually troops toting M-16s will patrol our cities.

The lesson is clear: If we give up the streets, we give up a free society.


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