Copper ground wires are stolen from a power substation near Pittsburgh, leaving thousands without electricity - the fourth such theft in that area in a week. In California, a statue of a recently deceased therapy dog is stolen from the Marin Humane Society; a spokeswoman speculates, "The statue was made out of bronze, so there are some theories that perhaps somebody was looking to make some money off of it."
Am I the only one, other than Matt Drudge, to notice the disturbing uptick in such stories recently? In Dallas, police say they are seeing 15 to 22 copper-theft offenses per day. In California, the aluminum bleachers of a school baseball field vanished at the start of the school year; the Associated Press reports the brazen theft was "apparently the work of metal thieves who get paid by recyclers." All across the country, vandals are stealing air conditioners at an alarming rate: David Lindsey, a service manager for Michael Heating & Air Conditioning in Athens, Ga., laments, "Stealing air conditioners for their copper seemed to start in more rural areas, but now, with the foreclosure rate so high and a lot of houses sitting vacant, we've seen a huge increase in the past two years."
Societies in economic decline always cannibalize themselves in this manner. Precious materials are stripped from works of art, architecture and infrastructure; the cost of maintaining old structures goes up, ensuring that fewer new things are built. National and private infrastructure becomes older, plainer and eventually decrepit. Few people familiar with the monotone pyramids of Giza realize that those magnificent monuments once sported polished white limestone casings and brilliant caps of gold, silver or copper, making them luminous lodestars visible for miles in the Egyptian sun. But they were stripped long ago of those finishing touches, just as the tombs of every pharaoh save the boy king Tutankhamen were long ago plundered by thieves willing to trade the glory of their civilization for a fleeting respite from their own crushing poverty.
We may be in the early stages of such cannibalization, to be sure, but we appear to have entered it just the same. It is the inevitable consequence of this new American crisis, a crisis brought on by a structural failure of almost every institution of consequence at all levels of society. Consider what we have seen just this year from three pivotal institutions:
- Education: In Atlanta, the entire public school system has been rocked by revelations of systemic corruption on the part of 178 teachers and principals who, for nearly a decade, "erased and corrected mistakes on students' answer sheets," according to the Atlanta-Journal Constitution. School systems Baltimore, Philadelphia and the District of Columbia also have heard allegations of systemic cheating.
- Law: The entire nation sat stunned on July 5 as the verdict in the Casey Anthony murder trial came back - not guilty. Many people were so rocked by this seemingly inexplicable verdict as to question the validity of our entire justice system, especially because every law-abiding citizen merely boarding a plane these days, from preschooler to grandma, is manhandled and frisked like a common criminal.
- Government: During the debt-ceiling debate, Americans once again watched their elected leaders put off a monumental decision until the last possible minute, then cobble together the worst possible non-solution by delegating their governing responsibilities to some future, extraconstitutional body. Meanwhile, in the days since the "deal," our national orgy of borrowing has continued apace and the debt of the United States government approaches a horrific 100 percent of gross domestic product. The average American knows that if he behaved in this manner, he would be fired, jailed or bankrupt quickly.
It all amounts to a crisis of legitimacy: Trust in our once-respected institutions is vanishing as fast as copper wires and air conditioners. We had better get busy building new institutions before the old ones collapse from the weight of their own bloated corpulence - and take our entire civilization with it.
Matt Patterson is senior editor at the Capital Research Center and a contributor to "Proud to Be Right: Voices of the Next Conservative Generation" (HarperCollins, 2010).
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