The erosion of America

The 21st Century has seen the erosion of so much that once made America the storied "shining city on a hill."

A clip from "The Walk," the new film about Philippe Petit's 1974 high-wire walk between the Twin Towers of what was then the new World Trade Center, catapulted my thoughts back to 9/11 and the state of America before and after that nation-scorching tragedy — then news broke of the massacre at Oregon's Umpqua Community College.

Terrorism and gun violence: our country's two obsessions.

In so many ways, the 21st Century has been a time of erosion of so much that once made America the storied "shining city on a hill." This year alone, we have already tallied some 300 mass killings. Add them to the mental landscape of terror already shaped by mass murders in a Charleston, S.C., church; an Army base in Ft. Hood, Tex.; a Navy yard in Washington, D.C.; an elementary school in Newtown, Conn.; a movie theater in Aurora, Colo.; and a supermarket parking lot in Tucson, Ariz.

We watch as atrocities mount in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, having failed to win a 14-year "war on terror." The U.S. had every good reason to try to destroy the terrorists who attacked us in September 2001, but, we haven't eradicated terror. Instead, we've left a wake of destroyed countries, lost thousands of American lives and spent nearly $2 trillion.

And we have done little to end the carnage at home.

The private arsenal of U.S. citizens includes more than 300 million guns. And more than 350,000 Americans have been killed by guns since 9/11, not counting accidents; two thirds of the deaths were suicides and one third homicides. This is more than a thousand times the number of people who have died at the hands of foreign terrorists, which stands around 3,000.

But the 21st-century erosion of America has been about much more than violence. The U.S. economy has failed most of its people. The typical American household's income is 10 percent lower than it was in 2000, and average hourly wages, after adjusting for inflation, are virtually the same as they were when the World Trade Center was completed in 1973.

While the stock market boomed during much of the Obama administration, most of the gains went to an ultra-rich elite, as the state of the real economy — including wages and volatile securities and housing markets — left most Americans reeling. Just as anemic GDP growth and rising inequality have led to wage stagnation for the average American, the U.S. has experienced dramatic relative economic decline. In purchasing-power terms, the U.S. out-produced China by a three-to-one margin at the turn of the millennium; a year ago, China surpassed the United States, according to the International Monetary Fund. And the federal government has racked up trillions of dollars in debt, with not much to show for much of this spending.

As the United States has become a nation of routine mass killings and declining living standards, it has also failed at what was once its most prized endowment — democratic governance "of the people, by the people and for the people." The century's first election was haunted by "hanging chads," resolved only by the Supreme Court's questionable Bush v. Gore decision of Dec. 12, 2000. "Dark money," the Orwellian, post-Citizens United term for buying elections under a cloak of legally sanctioned secrecy has pushed the nation toward a tipping point into plutocracy. Like a boat whirring ever deeper into the muck, governing in Washington has become trench warfare, in which a viciously hostile political dyad has perfected sound-bite attacks while abandoning the art of problem-solving compromise.

And we are only a decade and a half into a century that has already left the nation in tatters.

Andrew L. Yarrow, a historian and public policy professional, is the author of "Thrift: The History of an American Cultural Movement" and "Measuring America: How Economic Growth Came to Define American Greatness in the late 20th Century." His email is andrew.l.yarrow@gmail.com.

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