In our 'civilized society,' we can rob a dying man


It was thoughtful of Margaret Richardson to comfort us while we endured the pain of paying taxes this week.

Richardson, the head of the Internal Revenue Service, offered us the words of the great Oliver Wendell Holmes.

"Taxes," Holmes said, "are what we pay for civilized society."

A simple sentence, yet it has such broad meaning.

If we look at taxation that way, we have little reason to grumble. Just the opposite. That check to IRS becomes a bargain, a sweet deal, a small price to pay for the benefits of living in a society that is civilized.

Now, don't you feel better? What, you don't? Then let me try to guess what still bothers you.

It's the word "civilized," right? I thought so.

Yes, I have a problem with that word, too. My dictionary provides this definition: "1. Having an advanced or humane culture, society, etc. 2. polite, well-bred, refined."

There are those who might question how humane we are as a society. How polite, well-bred and refined.

By coincidence, I was thinking about the words of Oliver Wendell Holmes when a call came in from the widow of Judge Jack Arnold Welfeld.

Judge Welfeld died a few days ago.

He lived a long life, 82 years. And he had a satisfying career in law and as a Circuit Court judge in Cook County.

His family said he was a gentle, humorous man who treated others kindly and fairly. He liked helping people.

In other words, the sort of person who contributes to the civility found in a civilized society.

But his wife was unhappy. That he died, of course. But also about some of the circumstances.

The judge had a heart attack while he was driving his car. He collapsed, and his car rammed into the back of another.

Within moments, a witness said, as many as eight people rushed to Judge Welfeld's car.

To offer help? That would be the civilized thing to do when someone has an accident and is unconscious, possibly dead or dying.

That wasn't their motive, the witness said.

Instead, they looted the car and the pockets of an old man who was dead or dying. Then they vanished.

It wasn't a very civilized thing to do.

BAs the judge's widow said: "This is not the way we want to live."

No, but despite what IRS Commissioner Richardson said, that's the way it is, and we seem to be stuck with it.

The judge had his heart attack on the West Side of Chicago, the 4500 block of Madison Street.

That's a poor and dangerous neighborhood with the usual ingredients: high unemployment, crime, chronic welfare, drugs, drunks, gangs, kids who don't know their fathers, fathers who don't care.

But it could have happened in many other neighborhoods in Chicago. Or in New York, Detroit, Philadelphia, L.A. and any number of cities.

There are those who would say that we shouldn't be shocked (which I'm not), because this is what happens when a society has so many people who are poor and lack motivation and hope.

And we've just been told that no other Western society has as great a gap between the rich and the poor as we do.

Which is probably true. But, then, most other Western societies aren't as multicultural and multiracial as we are, with all the baggage that carries.

So that would be excusing the actions of the looters: An unjust society made them do it.

But I don't buy it. I don't think anyone who lives in the neighborhood of the 4500 block of Madison Street is so desperately hungry that they have to mug an old guy who is dead or dying.

The hospitals serving that area treat more than their share of wounds from guns, knives, bats, fists and feet. But they get few cases of Somalia-like starvation.

As poor as the people in that neighborhood are -- by the United States' standards of poverty -- there are few households that don't have a check from welfare, food stamps, a TV set, radios, a stove, refrigerators, lamps, hot and cold running water, toilets that flush, roofs that don't leak, and doors that lock.

By the standards of much of the world -- or this country in the Great Depression -- the looters are far from poor. Millions would consider them well off.

What they lack is not the price of a square meal. They are lacking civility.

So IRS Commissioner Richardson might reconsider whether she wants to go around quoting Oliver Wendell Holmes on taxes being the price we pay for a civilized society.

A lot of people might start demanding a refund.

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