America in Decline - 2

Millennia-old "sanctuary" customs are now routinely ignored.

This series focuses on less well-known signs that things are indeed coming apart.  The goal is not to counsel despair; America is still the greatest country on earth, and as Adam Smith observed, "There is a great deal of ruin in a nation."  The goal is to remind voters of the stakes involved while there's yet time to turn things around.

America has done a great deal of good for many generations of hard-working people.  As a nation we became so well off that people from all over the world wanted to get in on it - that's why it's said that America is a nation of immigrants and why we have so much controversy about illegal immigrants who jump the queue.

Politicians seem to believe that our people have forgotten that our economic success was founded on individual liberty.  As we gradually lose our liberties to a growing government, our economy declines.  If it declines far enough, nobody will want to come here any more.   This will solve our problem with illegal immigration, but we'll lose a whole generation of entrepreneurs who would work hard to pay lots of taxes to sustain our society if we'd let them.

With any decline comes many small signs that all is not well.  We need to keep these things in mind to remind us that there are consequences when government involves itself in the economy.

The first article in this series pointed out that many states are allowing formerly-paved roads to revert to gravel as they had been 75 or 100 years ago.  This saves the governmental entities money in the short term but it costs drivers a great deal of extra expense maintaining their cars.  This is the sort of sign of decline we're looking for.

Medieval Rules of War

Civilization, and along with it law and order, essentially disappeared after the Western Roman Empire collapsed on September 4, 476 when Romulus Augustus, the last Emperor of the Western Roman Empire, was deposed by Odoacer, a Germanic chieftain.

From that time forward, might essentially made right.  Ordinary people had no recourse against bandits, thieves, or rapacious local rulers.  Most people recognized that it would benefit everyone if some entity could enforce laws as the Romans had, but there were no entities powerful enough to do so.

The impetus to try to bring a bit of order to the darkness came from the church.  Starting in the 11th century, the church undertook a long-term project of behavior modification and tried to promote a "code of chivalry."  The idea was that anyone who was skilled in the use of weapons had a duty to God and to everyone else to follow certain rules which were designed to limit the horrors of war.

The code of chivalry forbade warriors to attack women, children, priests, peasants, or merchants.  They were supposed to restrict hostilities to combatants and leave noncombatants alone.

One of the most important rules was that soldiers weren't supposed to attack the wounded.  The rules said that wagons carrying wounded had to be clearly marked, and it was dirty pool to attack them.  This tradition continues down to this day, somewhat - the Red Cross paints big crosses on their ambulances and hopes not to be shot at while trying to save lives.

The idea of not harming noncombatants was abandoned during WW II with the fire bombing of Tokyo, Dresden, London, Canterbury, and many other densely-populated cities as the concept of "total war" gained adherence.  Even during the darkest days of total war, however, the thought of shooting deliberately at hospitals or ambulances was somehow not quite right.  Hospitals were supposed to be places of healing, not places for the dealing of death.

This cultural code was so strong that it even had some influence over people who'd abandoned ordinary codes of ethics entirely - the criminals.  Up until very recently, hospitals and churches in even the most dangerous inner-city combat zones were mostly immune from direct attack; people being chased or assaulted who managed to make it to sanctuary would not be pursued by their attackers, and even the lowest thug wouldn't attack a priest or doctor in uniform.

Open Season in Hospitals

Unfortunately, the longstanding tradition of the inviolability of hospitals has taken a beating of late.  Mexican assassination squads routinely pursue their victims into hospitals when they don't kill them on the first attempt.  This may seem like a far-away issue, but it's getting closer and closer to home.

I had a recent occasion to accompany someone to the emergency room of a downtown New England hospital.  I hadn't been keeping up with the deterioration of our social consciousness, however, and I was shocked to find a sign just inside the door announcing that the emergency room was a "zero tolerance" zone for both violence and abuse.  The sign announced in both English and Spanish that the hospital security forces had a direct line to the police station and would summon the police at the slightest sign of any disturbance.

To drive the point home, the emergency room wall had a glass panel which looked into a closet-sized room which housed a uniformed security guard.  There was a small hole in the glass so we could talk to the guard.  The glass wasn't quite as thick as the one-inch stuff I had seen in branch banks in tough Boston neighborhoods because it was protecting mere people instead of protecting money, but it looked plenty strong enough to deter most attacks on the guard while he called the cops.

An emergency room which needed a security guard to keep people from commiting violence against patients and healers!

It got worse inside.  The place had the usual curtained rooms where they try to give patients some privacy, and counters with bandages, IVs, and the usual hospital paraphernalia.  Right there on a counter was a pair of scissors.  It was a perfectly ordinary pair of scissors, but it was chained to a cabinet!  There seemed to be no need to chain down the more exotic and less easily pawned medial devices; the scissors, however, might grow legs or wind up in someone's chest where they didn't belong.

In our inner cities, hospitals are no longer respected as places for healing.  They've become places for violence and theft.

What a decline!  Even warriors in the Middle Ages knew to leave hospitals alone.  When moralizers worry that we're heading towards a new Dark Age, they may be being over-optimistic.

Will Offensicht is a staff writer for and an internationally published author by a different name.  Read other articles by Will Offensicht or other articles on Society.
Reader Comments

Law and order did not disappear following the collapse of the Roman empire. In some areas it increased as the Germanic tribes that came in were able to effectively administer justice. In some cases Germanic law replaced Roman law, generally however the Germanic leaders became Romanized and left much of the Roman infrastructure in place.

October 11, 2010 1:17 PM

It didn't disappear overnight, no - but I don't think anyone would consider the Fall of Rome to be a good thing re civilization. And virtually anyone would rather live under the mid Roman Empire than in the Dark Ages.

October 11, 2010 1:22 PM

the Roman republic I'll give you, the Roman Empire was rarely peaceful with the rapid turn over of emperors and no clear way to determine the next emperor except through warfare.

The weakness of Rome though was foreshadowed more by: the welfare state that Rome (the city) had become; the debasement of its currency; and the increasingly high taxes needed to maintain the government.

October 11, 2010 8:08 PM


You got it Jony, kinda like modern day America....

October 11, 2010 10:11 PM

Now Willie, you wouldn't be hinting that the need for the second language on the sign had anything to do with the violence or the guard, would you?

October 11, 2010 10:14 PM
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