A blog for better streets and public spaces in Portland, Maine.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

You Can't Build Speed Bumps to Slow Down Thuggery

[note: excerpts of this post originally appeared on my other blog, The Vigorous North.]

This is a blog about creating better public spaces and safer streets in Portland, Maine. Typically, that's meant that I write about better architecture, or streets where cars and their sedentary lifestyle don't threaten our health and safety, or creating more affordable and egalitarian transportation options.

But yesterday I was reminded that we live in relative luxury if these kinds of issues are really the biggest ones our city faces. In many parts of the world, after all, people aren't merely threatened by car traffic and lack of economic opportunity. In many parts of the world, people are also threatened by institutionalized thuggery, rampant crime, corruption, and civil war.

I write about comparatively benign local issues I do here not because I think that those international problems are trivial, but because I believe that working locally is the most practical way for me to have a positive impact on the world at large. Creating a more sustainable community here seems to me to be the best way I can make an impact on the seemingly intractable problem of global climate change, for instance. And my activism for affordable transport and affordable housing also aims for Portland to sustain its egalitarianism while it also provides more economic prosperity for more people - including the refugee populations that are seeking new homes in Maine after experiencing terror firsthand.

Still, my focus creating better public spaces and a more sustainable, prosperous economy might lead readers to believe that Portland - or any American city, for that matter - doesn't have to worry about thugs in the streets and institutionalized racism. And that's not true, unfortunately. And the fact that it isn't true is a far bigger threat to all of us than car exhaust and distracted drivers - as deadly as those things can be.

On my bike ride to work this on Monday, the morning after the news broke about Osama bin Laden's assassination, I passed by our neighborhood mosque, just a few blocks from my house, and I saw this.

And, in addition to this, more graffiti that said "Long live the west" and "Go home."

Somewhere in this city I love there is at least one cowardly neo-Nazi who has the disgusting gall to believe that religious persecution is somehow an American value.

Seeing this provided a visceral demonstration of how rage can beget more rage. I found myself wishing I'd had the presence of mind to head outside and check on our neighbors last night when I'd heard the news. With a baseball bat.

But what good would that really have done? This is just graffiti, and it's already been painted over. American Muslims, unfortunately, have suffered much worse. The real damage is the toxic, self-consuming hatred that still persists, not only in the bitter minds of those who did this, but even in the dim intellects of presumably "upstanding" members of our community. Let's not forget our daily newspaper's publisher, Richard Connor, the dimwit who apologized for running a front-page story about local Ramadan celebrations last September 11, and then humiliated himself and his city by broadcasting his racist cowardice on national radio.

Make no mistake: the fact that Americans among us could behave this way is much more of a threat to our public safety, and to the American republic itself, than Osama bin Laden ever was.

If Osama Bin Laden's death spurs cowardly, Klan-like hate crimes like this one, then there is nothing to celebrate. The terrorists are still among us.

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