Paul Greenberg


O judgment! Thou art fled to brutish beasts,

And men have lost their reason.

--"Julius Caesar," Act III, Scene 2

What a surfeit of surreal scenes have been pouring out of little Ferguson, Missouri, these past few weeks -- as if they'd never end. Amazing. Some of us couldn't stop watching the unending spectacle, painful as it was. Goethe said it: "There is nothing more frightful than ignorance in action." Or more mesmerizing. Was this thing ever going to end? It didn't look like it for a while there, as if there were an endless supply of bad decisions in and around that once ordinary suburb. Goodness, what a little town and what big, even national and international news it was making. And none of it welcome.

Little old Ferguson (Pop, 21,203) was a big story and rightly so, since all concerned -- whether in law enforcement or out, whether inside agitators or outside -- kept providing the rest of us with one example after another of atrocious judgment and worse behavior.

Can there be anything, anything at all, to be learned from this big and ever continuing story besides how not to react to a crisis?

Yes. A number of things. Together they comprise a kind of step-by-step guide -- a primer -- on how to keep your town from becoming the next Ferguson or, if it does, how to contain and even reverse all the mischief so plainly out of control there.

Such a guide has been sorely needed. Remember all the troubles of the tumultuous Sixties and Seventies in this country? Back then all of urban (and not so urban) America looked like Ferguson writ large. Some of those troubles kept coming back over the following decades. But some cities actually learned from them.

Cincinnati, for example. It's not easy now to recall the days when Cincinnati was making the kind of jarring headlines that Ferguson has just done. Yes, Cincinnati -- long one of the most civilized of American cities, an outpost of German order and Kultur in the American Midwest. A center of all-American freedom, enterprise and civic pride. Home of the Tafts, various religious orders and seminaries, and rousing band music. Also the classical kind. (Did I say it was a town with a German heritage? As in Bach and Mozart?) Back before what Southerners call The War, on crossing over the Ohio to Cincinnati and free soil, the boatman would yell out: "You are now approaching the American shore!"


Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.