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The Other War

Later tonight, President Obama will address the nation and make the case for sending another 30,000 American troops to the Afghan war front. That's certainly a worthy effort, and America must restore its credibility in the world. But let's not forget The Other War – the one unfolding on the streets of major American cities like Detroit.

If there's any president who can lead this country into an honest conversation about what's needed to resolve the poverty and hopelessness that drives much of the crime ravaging cities like this one, it is Obama. He is, after all, the first president with a true understanding of what it means to live and work in America's poorest urban communities, having developed much of his political skills in places like Altgeld Gardens, a public housing development on Chicago's Far South Side. Obama created the first White House Office of Urban Affairs, a move actually intended to broaden the definition of “urban affairs” into the more palatable “metropolitan affairs.” Certainly, many of the Obama Administration's first-year policies lay the groundwork for what could potentially revive, and reimagine, cities like Detroit.

Nevertheless, in this city, where nearly one-third of the remaining 900,000 or so residents is unemployed, there is a palpable sense of frustration, and impatience. At a cocktail party one recent night, the conversation turned to how the rest of the world, and particularly Obama, views Detroit. “Obama, he doesn't care about Detroit,” one African-American lawyer scoffed. Few people here seem to believe that anyone outside Detroit – certainly in its largely (but, decreasingly) white suburbs -- actually cares that the nation's 11th-largest city is on the brink of financial collapse. Or that only one-quarter of Detroit public high school freshmen are likely to receive a diploma within four years. Detroit's police force has been cut by 25% in recent years, and the remaining 3,000 officers are overwhelmed covering a vast, often sparsely populated territory that in some sections resembles a war zone. That's why residents of Detroit's last relatively middle-class neighborhoods no longer expect police to respond to calls about matters that in most of the country would be fairly routine. So they've come to view private neighborhood security patrols as normal. Meanwhile, the toll from The Other War is mounting, and most of the casualties are black and male.

“We pay attention to foreign terrorism – as we should,” Kym Worthy, the top prosecutor in Wayne County, Mich., which includes Detroit, told me Monday night. “But we need to focus on the terrorism that consumes Americans' lives everyday: robberies, rapes, homicides.” In Detroit, Worthy observed, “people are literally afraid to go out their houses to open the door and get mail. That's unconscionable in America.” Worthy no longer bothers sending prosecutors to deal with misdemeanors, because she can't. When she took the job in 2004, Worthy's office had 190 prosecutors. Now, she's down to 145 – far below the 300 or so prosecutors that counties of Wayne's size (roughly 2 million people) typically employ.

What should we expect Obama to do? He should deliver a major address from Detroit or New Orleans and articulate his vision for American urban policy – and, then, fortify that rhetoric with substantive, sustainable initiatives. Saturating America's most crime-ravaged neighborhoods with law enforcement officers probably isn't the answer. Nor is simply throwing money into an already bloated bureaucracy. The president's address should make clear that the urban crisis is spreading quickly across 8 Mile Road, the boundary between Detroit and its suburbs, and so all Americans have much at stake in rescuing cities like this one. Dealing with American failure isn't sexy. But if Detroit or New Orleans fail, it will be a stain for Obama, and our country.

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