The Body Count is Rising.
(Printed in the Towanda Daily Review on 3/15/98.)
Hugh Thompson knew immediately that something was wrong; Robert McNamara claimed such insight, but acted, in vain, only decades later. We are now in similar circumstances with our "War on Drugs". Do we accept and perpetuate the hysteria, or do we pause and contemplate rationally our direction and its implications.
On March 16, 1968, American troops systematically killed hundreds of unarmed Vietnamese men, women, and children at My Lai. Hellish prior circumstances may have seemingly justified such atrocities to the converging troops who later rationalized, "It became necessary to destroy the village to save it." Yet the undeniable fact was that innocent, unarmed civilians were being killed. Initially flying a routine mission as he piloted his helicopter over My Lai, Thompson quickly realized that something was terribly wrong, later recounting that "there were a large number of bodies everywhere."
Thompson twice landed between the rampaging U.S. troops and small groups of stunned Vietnamese civilians, and ordered his crew to fire on the Americans if their advances were not halted. He knew that something was wrong, and acted to end the now obvious atrocities
McNamara, secretary of defense during the Vietnam War, admitted in his book, "In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam," that even as he escalated the war, he believed that it was "wrong, terribly wrong." Yet, he still accepted the rhetoric of U.S. policy to "contain communism at all costs." Ultimately, it "cost" the lives of 58,000 Americans.
"Now we are engaged in a great civil war testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure." Lincoln's words ring eerily accurate even as applied to our "War on Drugs" and warn, to those who would listen, that something is wrong – again.
In our quixotic quest for a drug-free nation, we have incarcerated a larger percentage of our citizens, currently 1.7 million, than any nation on Earth. Over sixty percent are non-violent drug offenders. The average sentence for a "first-time, non-violent drug offender is longer than the average sentence for rape, child molestation, bank robbery, or manslaughter." At the present exponential rate of incarceration, half of our population will be behind bars in fifty years.
Annually in the U.S., 8,000 to 14,000 people die from illegal drugs. Yet fifty times this number, one-half million deaths annually in the U.S., are attributed to alcohol, tobacco, and prescriptions – all legal, two highly subsidized.
After thirty years and almost one trillion dollars, the "War on Drugs" has achieved no reduction in illegal drug abuse or distribution. It has, however, severely compromised our Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable searches and seizures, wasted countless billions of taxpayer money, and severely overloaded our police, legal, and penal institutions.
Despite its ineffectiveness, a major reason the "War" persists is its support structure. "Zero tolerance", regardless of the consequences, is a popular political platform. Law enforcement officials support it because non-violent drug offenders, who instead should be receiving medical treatment, are more easily and more visibly processed than hardened criminals, criminals whose real intent would be to maim, rape, or murder you or a loved one. Asset seizures are lucrative for the seizing agency – particularly since the courts have allowed the bypass of all burdens of proof by the state that guilt exists in such cases.
Locally, we are considering the use of dogs to search our schools. Our school superintendent said that, "… it's certainly our obligation to do everything we can to keep drugs out of schools." "Everything we can" – even if it means teaching several generations of adolescents about the "Bill of Suggestions" to our Constitution. My recommendation to the students is to tape the Fourth Amendment to your lockers in protest of this dilution of your rights as citizens of this great nation. It reads, "The rights of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated …." This protest would certainly be covered by the First Amendment unless of course school officials make up some lame rule about posting notes to lockers.
DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education), a hugely popular program, consumes $750,000,000 per year, yet has had little or no effect reducing drug abuse according to a study sponsored by the U.S. Department of Justice and first reported by USA Today, and later the American Journal of Public Health. The U.S. General Accounting Office reported in GAO/GGD-93-82, "There is little or no evidence so far that DARE and other 'resistance training' programs have reduced the use of drugs by adolescents." After reviewing DARE for content, cost, and effectiveness, the communities of Oakland, CA and Fayetteville, NC terminated it.
We should heed Lincoln's words, for this "War on Drugs" is indeed a civil war that "no nation can long endure." We should learn from McNamara and act now rather that after our nation is further torn apart. And we should emulate Hugh Thompson to look beyond the hysteria and see the injustices before we "destroy this nation in order to save it."
Something is "wrong, terribly wrong" with our "War on Drugs". The body count is rising. Rather than later, we must recognize and stop the atrocities now. Drug abuse is bad, but this "War on Drugs" is far far worse.
John L. Ferri