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Carroll County Times
Carroll County

Robert Wack: Our hearts are turning harder, colder

Two recent events in our community trouble me, and I've struggled for a while to put words to the emotions.

The events aren't necessarily directly connected, but in a way they both speak to something that I think many people sense is wrong with our country today, provoking a sense of unease about our future.

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The first is the death of Paula Carlisle in Westminster on Jan. 8. Carlisle was found behind a local business huddled around the remains of a small fire she lit to keep warm, and died from smoke inhalation and burns.

She was one of the many homeless persons in our community, living right among us, but on the periphery of our awareness and understanding. I did not know her personally, or the exact details of her situation, but it's likely that, like many homeless people, she struggled with some combination of mental illness and substance abuse. Along with economic hardship, it's a combination of misfortune that creates near intractable problems for people so stricken.

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As an elected official of the City of Westminster, I am ashamed that this happened in my hometown. The city provides no direct services to the homeless beyond the basic compassionate support provided by city employees when they encounter homeless people in distress.

We also have many very dedicated human services organizations that do heroic work caring for the homeless in our community. So what more could the City of Westminster have done for this particular woman? I don't know, but that doesn't lessen my shame that she died on our streets, alone and cold, while I am an elected official.

The other troubling recent event is the passage of the English-only ordinance by our county commissioners.

Despite the considerable opposition by the community, all five commissioners voted for the ordinance, presenting a variety of convoluted, confused and at times incoherent reasons for their support of a new law that they readily concede fixes nothing and might only address a theoretical future problem.

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Meanwhile, despite the best intentions of supporters, the new law gives the rest of the state the impression that Carroll has no interest in people from other cultures.

Supporters say they aren't racists, and are only defending American culture from attacks by hostile forces polluting our heritage.

Multiculturalism is portrayed as moral corruption that will destroy our way of life.

This is the same kind of ignorant, short-sighted, self-righteous baloney that racists have used around the world and throughout history to justify all manner of odious, mean and exclusionary practices and laws. Our American history is nothing but multiculturalism, as the home of the world's tempest tossed, tired, homeless refuse, to paraphrase the Emma Lazarus poem on the Statue of Liberty.

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What is the connection between these two events? Beyond the depressing sense of inevitability and helplessness they evoke in me, I'm not sure. Homelessness is a seemingly intractable problem present in every community in our country, and no one has good solutions. Yet does that absolve us of the responsibility to try and prevent the lonely, painful deaths of people like Carlisle?

Misguided efforts like the English-language ordinance will continue as communities struggle to cope with the enduring hardships and rapid changes in today's world, sometimes succumbing to the expedient of scapegoating minorities least able to defend themselves. Then we'll find that nothing has changed except that now our community has lowered the bar even further on our sense of community and compassion.

Maybe that's what it is: instead of the problems we fear coming from the outside world, they really originate from within. Our hearts are turning harder and colder. That is something to truly fear.


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