American Obscenities

At times, outrageous juxtapositions in the news shriek for attention. Sometimes, they're actually obscene.

On one hand, for instance, a series in the New York Times last week about the plight of 22,000 homeless children in New York City -- "the highest number since the Great Depression in the most unequal metropolis in America."

On the other hand, was a scattering of reports, all facets of another on-going outrage: The hundreds of billions of dollars that the U.S. continues to pour into the cesspools of Central Asia, in a still undefined and ultimately futile effort to control political events thousands of miles away.

We begin with the startling five-part series about the plight of the huge "invisible tribe" of homeless children and their families in New York City, written by Times reporter Andrea Elliott. She eschewed mind-numbing statistics and faceless generalizations to zero in on the day-by-day plight of one 12 year-old girl, named Dasani.

She [Dasani] wakes to the sound of breathing. The smaller children lie tangled beside her, their chests rising and falling under winter coats and wool blankets. A few feet away, their mother and father sleep near the mop bucket they use as a toilet. Two other children share a mattress by the rotting wall where the mice live, opposite the baby, whose crib is warmed by a hair dryer perched on a milk crate.

Dasani lived for three years in a teeming, squalid homeless shelter, the Auburn Family Residence in Brooklyn. She shared a cramped, dank room with seven siblings and her parents, both of whom battled -- not always successfully -- with drug addiction.

That residence, which holds 280 children and their families, is located in Forest Greene, one of the new gentrified glories of a supposedly transformed Brooklyn. Despite New York's spectacular resurgence over the past few years, the numbers of poor have also risen. Thousands, like Dasani and her family, have been consigned to "shelters" like the Auburn.

It is a place where mold creeps up walls and roaches swarm, where feces and vomit plug communal toilets, where sexual predators have roamed and small children stand guard for their single mothers outside filthy showers....

Almost half of New Yorkers live near or below the poverty line. "Their traditional anchors -- affordable housing and jobs that pay a living wage -- have weakened as the city reorders itself around the whims of the wealthy."


But there were reports about another scandal last week, the continuing drip-drip of exposes that have been going on for so long that most of us are inured to them. Our eyes glaze over. And yet, it continues: the hemorrhaging of hundreds of billions of American dollars, part of a War on Terror that no one has ever clearly explained -- nor convincingly justified.

One shocking case involves almost half a billion U.S. government dollars flushed down the drain in Afghanistan. Four hundred and eighty-six million dollars, to be precise. That's the amount the U.S. spent to provide twenty G-222 turboprop transport planes to the Afghan Air Force. The planes are currently gathering dust on the tarmacs in Kabul and Frankfurt. Most never flew for more than a few hundred hours.

The problem? For one thing, the company running the program -- Rome-based Finmessanica Alenia Aermachi -- never bought enough spare parts to keep the planes running. To do that, another $200 million would be needed. Another problem: Some of those parts are no longer available. Indeed, six of the original planes have already been cannibalized for spares.
The upshot: even before entering fully into service, those $486 million dollars worth of planes are to be junked.


Back to New York: According to the Times, the reasons for the disturbing existence of huge numbers of homeless children are complex. They range from the economic crisis to wage stagnation to the rising costs of housing. They are also a direct result of Draconian cutbacks on government spending, on all levels, particularly for programs intended to help the poor: rent subsidies, special education, child care, health etc. etc. etc.

Americans, after all, have to tighten their belts, make sacrifices, get their financial house in order.
On the other hand, a few blocks from Dasanis's shelter, the much more affluent kids have tutors to help boost their SAT's and attend a private school where tuition is $35,000 a year.
Dasani, however, attends a nearby public school.

The Susan S. McKinney Secondary School of the Arts has suffered its own troubles under the Bloomberg administration: a shrinking budget and fewer teachers....

[Her teacher] Miss Hester knows that students learn when they get excited. It bothers her that McKinney lacks the sophisticated equipment of other public schools. She shelled out more than $1,000 of her own money, as a single mother, to give her classroom a projector and document camera.


In far-off Kabul, it turns out that the major problem with the half a billion dollars worth of planes that are to be junked is the fact that, as Lt. General Charles Davis, the top acquisition officer in the U.S. Airforce admitted, the planes themselves just weren't up to the wear and tear, the heat and the dust, of the Afghan environment.

"Just about everything you can think of was wrong for it other than the airplane was built for the size of cargo and mission they needed," Davis said in an interview. "Other than that, it didn't really meet any of the requirements."

John Sopko the special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, who wrote a blistering report on the planes, told Fox News, "We need to know who made the decision to purchase these planes and why?" "We intend to get to the bottom of this and hold people accountable."

Sopko has his hands full. With the U.S. pouring some two billion dollars a week into Afghanistan over the past few years, such scandals have been a dime a dozen.

For instance, The Washington Post reports that the U.S. has so far spent $107 million dollars to build a massive five story Defense Ministry headquarters "which will include state-of-the-art bunkers and the second-largest auditorium in Kabul."

That $107 million is double the original estimate, but the mammoth hulk is still not completed. The U.S. government has -- temporarily -- run out of money for the project.

"Nobody was watching it like they should, and it's just been an open checkbook," said an American official involved in the management of the project." "We failed, big time."
That Pentagon in Kabul is only part of a huge $9.3 billion construction spree -most of it financed by the U.S. government -- aimed at providing hundreds of bases, outposts and hospitals for the Afghan military.


Back to the Times:

"One in five American children is now living in poverty, giving the United States the highest child poverty rate of any developed nation except for Romania."

And at the Auburn shelter in Brooklyn.

City and state inspectors have repeatedly cited the shelter for deplorable conditions, including sexual misconduct by staff members, spoiled food, asbestos exposure, lead paint and vermin. Auburn has no certificate of occupancy, as required by law, and lacks an operational plan that meets state regulations. Most of the shelter's smoke detectors and alarms have been found to be inoperable...

Responses by the city's Department of Homeless Services attribute Auburn's violations to a lack of money. To the state's complaint, in 2003, that only one staff member is tending to 177 school-age children in the shelter's recreation room, the agency responds: "We lack resources for teenagers!"

The Times Public Editor commented on the homeless series. One of her concerns was that some readers might take issue with the language used by Dasani's mother: the "vulgarities in the passage...the use of the F word twice in Thursday's installment."

The editor wanted to reassure Times' readers. "Our basic guidelines about avoiding vulgarities and obscenities haven't changed, but we all recognize that there are cases where an exception is justified."


Members of congress were more tasteful in their choice of epithets during a hearing this past week. Experts from the State Department and the Pentagon were testifying before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on the administration's plans for withdrawing troops from Afghanistan.

The problem arose when Representative Dana Rohrabacher, a California Republican, asked what he thought was a fairly simple question.

"How much are we spending annually in Afghanistan? How much is the cost to the American taxpayer?"

According to the news report, he was met with "stone silence" from the government experts. They looked questioningly at each other with empty stares.

"Anybody know?" Mr. Rohrabacker asked. "Nobody knows the total budget, what we're spending in Afghanistan. It's a hearing on Afghanistan. Can I have an estimate?

"I'm sorry, congressman," one of the experts said.

Mr. Rohrabacker called the lack of an answer "disheartening." (The correct answer is almost $93 billion.)

"How many killed and wounded have we suffered in the last 12 months," he asked.

Again, none of the three had an answer. One said he would check and get back. (The answer is 118)

"We're supposed to believe you fellows have a plan that is going to end up in a positive way in Afghanistan," the congressman said. "Holy cow."


Meanwhile, responding to the Times series on the "Invisible Child", New York's newly appointed deputy mayor for health and human services, said the in-coming administration would restore rental subsidies in some form to help reduce the level of the homeless.

"That's a good start," the Times editorialized" but more is needed, including from Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who can aid that effort by ponying up money for the subsidy program as well as for services that save poor people from eviction."

The Times announced that, with donations pouring in from readers moved by the series on the "Invisible Child, the newspaper has set up a trust to administer those funds on behalf of the children.


And in Kabul, as they wait for an expected $24 million to complete the new military headquarters, American officials have dispatched a skeleton crew to install windows to protect the building from the harsh Kabul winter.

"We have gotten ourselves into a position that we need to get out of, and we definitely need to fix it," said Brig. Gen. Michael E. Wehr, the deputy chief of staff engineers for the U.S.-led coalition. "It's an important building. It's a Ministry of Defense headquarters. It's in Kabul. We've got to get this done right."

(With thanks to Jim Rissman and his invaluable monitoring of reports from the front of The War on Terror)

Barry Lando has just published a mystery, "The Watchman's File", which follows the attempt of an American investigative reporter to unravel Israel's most closely-guarded secret. (It's not the Bomb). Available in soft-cover on Amazon and as a Kindle edition.