ON THE MORNING my car was stolen right out of my back yard, I naturally pointed the finger at George W. Bush, and Ronald Reagan before him. Bush and Reagan are not specifically police suspects, as they were nowhere near my neighborhood at the time. But, in the world of criminals and addicts, they have a name of their own: enablers.
The cops said my car was probably sold for five bucks to finance some perpetrator's quick narcotics fix. President Bush would spend huge billions for a fantasy "Star Wars" nuclear defense against an enemy we do not know. Meanwhile, the daily defense against the known enemies in our back yards, who make life in any urban American community such an act of faith, goes fantastically underfinanced in matters relating to police, to courts, to punishment, and to rehabilitation of all manner.
The car in my back yard was taken on Sunday, Feb. 4, while President Bush was beginning to sell the leftover "Star Wars" missile shield idea originally hustled more than a decade ago by Reagan. The system was derided back then as science fiction and monstrously expensive. As of yesterday morning, when this newspaper carried a front-page story on the missile shield -- "Bush pushes missile defense" -- the car was still missing, and the missile system was still being derided as science fiction and monstrously expensive.
The car is a '92 Honda Accord, sort of red, driven by the youngest in my family when she comes home from college. It has more than 100,000 miles on it. When my wife and I went outside to look for it, we discovered both her car and another car of mine had also been broken into and their contents -- some of them, anyway -- stolen.
My wife had some clothing in the trunk, to be given to charity, which was rummaged through but not taken. Fashion is such a personal thing. I had some old cassettes lying around, also not taken. Apparently, the thieves do not appreciate Sarah Vaughan singing Gershwin. But they did take about $10 in quarters I was saving for downtown parking meters.
Siege mentality "It's a classic job for this neighborhood," said the first policeman who arrived. "They'll drive the car up the road and sell it for five bucks to get a quick fix to start the day. Whoever buys it will drive it around until the gas runs out. Or they'll take it to a chop shop where they'll strip it for parts."
We will offer no recitation here of car theft statistics for the Baltimore metro area, or specific figures on auto break-ins. They run into the thousands, and each creates a depressing siege mentality greater than any fantasy of foreign nuclear attack. The city celebrates a dip in homicides but continues to struggle with the routine business of crime -- burglaries, muggings, assaults of all kinds, most of it fueled by narcotics, and lots of it now spreading into the suburbs where people once imagined they could escape all street crime.
And, as police departments struggle to put enough officers onto the streets, and state's attorney's offices choke on courtroom overloads, we have a president hustling this missile system to protect us against -- against what? Against something as real and immediate as a junkie's desperation?
The United States spends more on our military than the next 12 biggest spenders do on theirs -- combined. And most of those are our allies. We spend a greater percentage of the world's military dollars now than we did at the height of the Reagan defense buildup. Remember that buildup? Allegedly, it ended the Cold War. It certainly didn't eliminate the colossal spending surrounding it.
Thus, we arrive at the familiar conflict. When this president's father resided in the White House, and the Berlin Wall fell, we all heard talk of so-called "peace dividends." Some of us imagined money going to troubled cities. We are still imagining such a thing, but instead of such dividends we follow the news about efforts to finance this "Star Wars" business.
Lesson unlearned The other night, some of us went to see "Thirteen Days" at the movies. It was quite chilling, as a movie and as a memory of the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. That moment, when John Kennedy faced Nikita Khrushchev and the world flirted with annihilation, was supposed to have taught all of us the sheer folly of nuclear proliferation.
So here we are, nearly four decades later, and we're still playing the games of nuclear roulette. Never mind that computers have changed every international equation, and terrorists in rowboats can dynamite enormous naval vessels, and even the second-biggest military spender, Russia, spends only one-fifth of what the United States spends -- we're still talking about a sci-fi nuclear defense at an impossibly high cost.
And still wondering why we find it impossible to defend our own vulnerable neighborhoods from the real terror, which is the sheer desperation of a single junkie.