In a superb feat of civil engineering, Sissi, the giant boring-machine drilling in the Gotthard Base broke through recently to connect the two ends and form the longest tunnel (57km) in the world, 3 km longer than the next in length, the Seikan rail tunnel in Japan. When finished in 2017, high-tech tilting trains will travel through it at 250 kph (approximately 155 mph). Deutsche Bahn, the German national railroad, has just announced its Intercity Express, providing London another even faster connection through the channel tunnel to Europe — London to Brussels in two hours, Amsterdam and Cologne in four. China is busy developing a high-speed rail network. It all puts to shame our so-called high-speed rail in Illinois scheduled to run at speeds similar to The Royal Scotsman, a British steam locomotive from the 1950s. It begs the question … what has happened to us?
Cindy Sheehan, the anti-war activist whose son was killed in Iraq, wrote an opinion piece in Al Jazeera a short while ago on the shocking story of Dr. Aafia Siddiqui. Too many unanswered questions in this case, implausible scenarios, and an odious whiff reminiscent of the death row inmates’ cases in Illinois. They were found to be innocent because DNA evidence became available. Now this is the shocker: it was not just one or two or three inmates, it involved fully nine of the thirteen on death row at the time. Do witnesses lie? Yes, they do, particularly as in Siddiqui’s case, if they have shot someone out of fear or error. In Illinois, as these were death penalty cases, one would have rightfully expected a particular duty of care to prevent a miscarriage of justice. Unfortunately one cannot … what has happened to us?
The Rule of Law Index report was released the week before last by the World Justice Project based in Washington, D.C. Among the 11 wealthiest nations, the U.S. ranked ninth or lower on six of the nine variables used in the index. It was 10th on absence of corruption, same on fundamental rights, and 11th on access to civil justice. It doesn’t instill confidence. Our incarceration rate is over five times higher than other developed countries. At 748 per 100,000 population, it is also much greater than China (120) or India (32). What has happened to us?
Our Gini Index, measuring social inequality, is 40.8. It is far worse than Japan and the Scandinavian countries (around 25) and, of course, Europe. But even Pakistan (30.6) and India (36.8) are better than us. The latest poverty report confirms the story. We now have more Americans in poverty (43.6 million or 1 in 7) than ever in the history of these reports — the situation is actually even worse as the calculations do not appropriately reflect inflation. Have we become, in social terms, a third world country? What has happened to us?
A direct impact of poverty has been the steady deterioration of our property tax funded schools in poor districts where the decline in the tax base has left them strapped for cash and the students at a severe disadvantage no matter how many ways we parse ‘no child left behind’. Instead of righting the social ills producing these unteachable children, we blame the teachers. Consider the opposite approach used in Finland. Teachers are paid well, and command the same respect in society as high level professionals like doctors and lawyers. It turns out, Finland is forever at the head of European school league tables. Here, of course, we are busy devising new ways of punishing our teachers. One wonders who in the administration believes this is the right way to attract the best people into the profession. People who have never taught in a disadvantaged area telling teachers how to teach, politicians who have never fought in battle, or even served in the military, plunging us into wars. What has happened to us?
It is a question any leader seeking genuine change has to answer.