Monday, February 9, 2009

The Winter of Our Discontent

We have heard from so many of our leaders and politicians that we live in the greatest country on earth. Before we accept such nonsense at face value, and before we proclaim all our problems solved because Barack Obama is now president, let us examine a few news stories from the last two weeks.

A 93 year-old man living in Bay City, Michigan, froze to death in his home of fifty years.

“When neighbors went inside Marvin Schur’s house, the windows were frosted over,” Associated Press reporter David Eggert wrote, “icicles hung from a faucet, and the 93-year-old World War II veteran lay dead on the bedroom floor in a winter jacket over four layers of clothing.”

Mr. Schur had money and means, but probably not his full faculties. His nephew, himself 67 years of age and living in Florida, said his uncle had $600,000. Neighbors who entered the house to check on the man said bills were stacked on the kitchen table, each with cash clipped to it. He simply forgot to send his payment, something he had never done before, and this should have flagged the attention of the power company. Instead, a workman came out and placed a limiter on Schur’s meter. When the old man tried to use his electricity, the device shut him down. His furnace would not click on; his stove would not light. He was never contacted by the electric company directly, so he had no idea he had to go outside to the meter box and reset the limiter switch.

On the day he died, January 15, the temperature in that area of Michigan was between 12 degrees and minus 9.

The coroner claims that Schur suffered a “slow, painful death.” He found frostbite on the man’s foot during the autopsy.

Schur’s wife died a few years ago and the couple had no children. This man was a Purple Heart recipient in World War II, surviving a deadly war as a medic in the South Pacific. But he did not survive back home in 21st century America in winter.

Arguably, we have the means in this country to prevent an elderly war veteran from freezing to death in his home. Even if this is another Great Depression, we have the means, and someone should be held responsible for Mr. Schur’s death. I would start with Bay City Electric Light & Power.

Then there is the story of Aquan Lewis. This ten-year-old fifth grader was found hanging in his school bathroom by a janitor. Despite efforts to revive him, he died the next day. Coroners ruled the death a suicide, although his mother and family dispute this.

If this boy committed suicide, what could have transpired in his young life to deprive him of hope? If classmates killed him, what kind of country do we live in where children hang other children in the school bathroom? Or, as some of my students informed me, maybe Lewis was playing a game. Evidently, students choking themselves to the point of unconsciousness, produce a “high” like they get from taking certain drugs. So, if Lewis was choking himself and simply lost control, what does that say about our schools if a child is able to do this, indeed, wants to do this in order to catch a buzz? No matter the explanation, this story is a tragic commentary on our society.

These stories speak volumes about the state of our nation. Yes, we are a first world country. Yes, we are a rich country. Yes, we have a good standard of living.

But not for everyone. Not universally for every citizen.

And what about our attitudes toward such stories? I had my students do some journal writing about these cases. They were outraged and disturbed by both Aquan Lewis’ death and Marvin Schur’s. But when I threw in a case that happened this week, a woman named Roberta Abdue Dos Santos Busby, age 27, who dances at a bar called “Babes and Beer” that I pass every day on my way to and from work, I got a different reaction. Ms. Busby, mother of two small children, was doused with a flammable liquid and set on fire by two patrons of the club. She suffered severe burns over forty percent of her body.

When I told my students about Ms. Busby and what she did for a living, a few male students laughed. “What do you expect? She works in a bar dancing naked!”

Several other students registered their disgust with the comments as did I. It does not matter what a person’s job entails. No one deserves to be burned to death.

We have an uphill climb in this nation to restore our sense of respect—for other countries, for people, for our planet and resources, for ourselves. The world watched us fail with Hurricane Katrina. They know our history of slavery, of injustice. They have watched our public debate over Guantanamo Bay, renditions, water boarding, out and out torture. The world knows what America has become. We need to restore our respect for others, and regain the world’s respect.

The greatest nation on earth?

To Mr. Schur, freezing to death on his bedroom floor alone, I don’t think so.

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