The news from California is that its many homeless people are using the streets instead of bathrooms and that this has led, unsurprisingly, to a crisis of health and sanitation. Diseases once thought to have been eradicated, or nearly so, are reappearing with troubling frequency. Typhus, for instance.

The disease is spread by fleas which live on rats. The rats have proliferated in the streets of Los Angeles and other California cities where human feces and discarded syringes compose much of the litter. According to the Wall Street Journal, “In Los Angeles County cases of flea-borne typhus more than doubled since 2012, with 109 cases reported last year.”

The California EPA employed rat poison at its offices in Sacramento, because rats had infested the playground at the agency’s headquarters and children were at risk.

This move was met with protests from environmentalists. Really.

Does anyone believe that rats are endangered? Or care if they suffer?

They are famously and historically hard to kill. Also ubiquitous. They made possible the great medieval plague epidemics. One would think that any steps taken to control their populations, not to say exterminate them, would be that rare non-controversial initiative in this contentious age.

But, no, it is not possible even to poison disease spreading rats without ginning up protests and new laws. In this case, laws designed to protect such animals as might devour a rat that has been poisoned since that poison might get into the system of an unwary bobcat or eagle.

One wonders, when reading the Journal article, if some kind of new madness might be on the land and spreading like the diseases carried by those fleas that live on rats.

Consider the elements of the story:

It begins with an epidemic of … homelessness. Of people who have made the public square toxic. The streets are the commons but the addicts and homeless have taken them over. Which might be understandable, barely, if those were the streets of some third-world city in a country struggling with poverty, corruption, overpopulation, war, and post-colonial malaise.

But this is California, where millionaires hatch like mayflies. If California cannot take care of its homeless people, it can’t be for lack of money. Shelters could be built with the money under the sofa cushions in Hollywood and Silicon Valley.

But stipulate that the government – for one reason or another – cannot get the homeless people off the streets. Cannot even build bathrooms for them. That it is reduced to dealing with the second or third order problem of an infestation of rats.

Well, shouldn’t government be able to take on rats? Maybe not defeat them entirely but at least fight them using the most effective methods available.

It would seem inarguable that a great modern city cannot allow itself to be taken over – even metaphorically – by rats.

As for the eagles and foxes and bobcats that might be poisoned second-hand … well, that is unfortunate. And also, by the way, still more possibility than proven fact. But even if there were solid evidence that it is happening, that would not be reason to suspend the poisoning of the rats.

We seem, sometimes, a civilization that won’t stick up for itself. That increasingly gives in to forces that would destroy it or, at least, damage and defile it. We devote more and more resources – financial and moral – to dealing with epidemic forces that undermine the community and, even, civilization. When did it become the obligation of the society to risk deadly disease because the homeless defecate in the streets?

Why, for that matter, is a crisis of addiction treated as an unavoidable burden on the entire society? There was a time when drugs were supposed to liberate us all and deliver us into some new realm of consciousness and blah, blah, blah.

Then there was talk of a “war on drugs.” Well, if there ever was such a thing, the drugs won. People now die in the thousands from opioids which don’t even make them see beautiful colors or achieve any higher states of consciousness. The drugs merely dull the pain of existence until one exists no more.

Meanwhile there is “collateral damage,” like the proliferation of the homeless and the rats in California. And, then, fresh epidemics of old diseases.

The bleakest view of all this would be that the drugs have won. The drugs … and the rats.

But one suspects (rather than merely hopes) that this is more the end of a chapter than of the whole book. When the spirit of the age has become so anemic that it cannot tolerate the poisoning of vermin – for any reason – then the end of something is surely at hand.

Everything begins new in California, they say.

We’ll see.

Geoffrey Norman is a former editor of Esquire magazine and is a regular contributor to the Wall Street Journal, Weekly Standard and National Review. He has authored more than 15 books and remains active shaping public policy discussions. He lives in Vermont.


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