Communion Of Dreams

“We’re not at war with people in this country.”
May 15, 2009, 10:23 am
Filed under: Civil Rights, Constitution, Failure, Government, Privacy, Reason, Society, Terrorism, Violence

A friend sent me this Wall Street Journal article yesterday:

White House Czar Calls for End to ‘War on Drugs’

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration’s new drug czar says he wants to banish the idea that the U.S. is fighting “a war on drugs,” a move that would underscore a shift favoring treatment over incarceration in trying to reduce illicit drug use.

In his first interview since being confirmed to head the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, Gil Kerlikowske said Wednesday the bellicose analogy was a barrier to dealing with the nation’s drug issues.

“Regardless of how you try to explain to people it’s a ‘war on drugs’ or a ‘war on a product,’ people see a war as a war on them,” he said. “We’re not at war with people in this country.”

OK, that’s not the same thing as actually changing drug policy, but how you say something matters a lot. As Radly Balko says:

The drug war imagery started by Nixon, subdued by Carter, then ratcheted up again in the Reagan administration (and remaining basically level since) has had significant repercussions on the way drug policy is enforced, from policymakers on down to street-level cops. It’s war rhetoric that gave us the Pentagon giveaway program, where millions of pieces of surplus military equipment (such as tanks) have been transferred to local police departments. War imagery set the stage for the approximately 1,200 percent rise in the use of SWAT teams since the early 1980s, and has fostered the militaristic, “us vs. them” mentality too prevalent in too many police departments today.

War implies a threat so existential, so dire to our way of life, that we citizens should be ready to sign over some of our basic rights, be expected to make significant sacrifices, and endure collateral damage in order to defeat it. Preventing people from getting high has never represented that sort of threat.

The “War on (Some) Drugs” was never really about controlling drug abuse. It was about controlling people, particularly those people who could be easily demonized to give politicians a nice boost amongst their white, middle-class base. It helped to cement the allegiance of local pols and police departments, who got lots of new toys to play with at no cost (local cost, that is), and gave them more power. It eroded our civil rights and constitutional freedoms, and helped to set the stage for further intrusions when the “War on Terror” came along.

Getting rid of the “War” rhetoric doesn’t solve the problems with abuse of authority, but it does help to redefine the relationship a bit. It is a necessary first step in reclaiming some of our freedoms. Let’s hope that it is the first of many.

Jim Downey

(Cross posted to UTI.)

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