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Book Review

By Dan Baum. Little, Brown and Company, Boston, 1996. 396 pages. $24.95

Someone at the Library of Congress taking stock of this great work has assigned it in the Library's Subject Index to (1) Narcotics, Control of -- United States, and (2) Drug Traffic -- United States. The classification of Mr. Baum's work as a tome on control of narcotics trafficking says a lot about the classifier. Trafficking in drugs is exactly what the book is not about. (If this were the subject, the book would attract a very limited audience.) Either the official at the Library of Congress did not get past the title page, or an internal censor was at work to make sure the actual subject of the book did not stand out. In fact, what the book dwells on -- gently, in order not to give offense -- is that most painful of realizations, the capacity of ordinary people to do evil while intending to do good. Something like (1) Morality Play -- Present Day would be a better heading

On the factual level, Smoke and Mirrors weaves legislative and legal questions and accounts of people's words and deeds into a complex narrative. A reader will know some of the material Baum relates, but probably not all. Combing through Smoke and Mirrors is like speaking with an expert. A technical question becomes easier to understand. The account of an event gains precision through the addition of detail.

For example, a reader who has wrestled with the logic of the words "mixture or substance containing a detectable amount of X," where X stands for one of the eight kinds of material listed in the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, may be surprised to learn on page 81 that the germ of the idea is present in the Rockefeller New York State drug legislation of 1973. Presumably to dispose of the inconvenience of determining how much of a packet of heroin and sugar powder is heroin and how much sugar powder, the Rockefeller law ignores the difference and treats a weight of heroin as a weight of sugar powder, doubling or tripling the length of the sentence thrown at a defendant. The mixture-or-substance-containing expression of 1986 is a refinement of Rockefeller's "substance containing heroin."

The book is an impressive fund of stories about people, many of whom were interviewed by the author in the course of writing the book. Baum has done what the reader could not do: talk to those who took part in the morality play as it was happening. The reader comes by information that completes stories half known. For example, everyone connects "Just say no" with Nancy Reagan. But where did the "just" come from? Baum has the answer, on page 200.

Smoke and Mirrors has been praised for the quality of its writing. Composed of dozens of mini-narratives, many dropped and picked up again later, the text leads the reader onward in a flow that is hard to resist. Description is limited to external events, to facial expressions, physical actions, words spoken and tones accompanying them, to what would be observed had the reader been present on the scene. Baum does not pretend to describe what goes on in the mind of someone who participated in an event. The reader is not told how such and such a person thought and felt. That is left for the reader to dub in from the reader's own experience. The effect is verisimilitude, the technique dating from an age before TV.

This being the TV age, Baum's mini-narratives are sound-bite in length. Episodes fill a paragraph or at most several pages. Baum does not make a point of being scrupulously "objective." He is willing to add a little color here and there. William Bennett did not end an embarrassingly long silence with what he said; he growled. When Representative Larry Smith turned to staff members who believed marijuana should be legalized, he didn't say, he fumed: "Traitors, they're all traitors." When President Nixon received the text of a speech prepared by a staffer, he didn't just look at it; "Nixon scowled at the speech and slashed at it with his pen." The author is not above shaping the reader's response in this fashion.

The style is Time Magazine's. Page 84 includes a quotation from a Time Magazine piece on an upscale cocaine party in Manhattan. The quotation slips unobtrusively into Baum's text, qualifying adjectives and all: "The dinner party on Manhattan's fashionable East Side included all the chic refreshments. It began with perfectly mixed martinis, followed by a fine vintage wine ... guests puffed the finest marijuana ...." When the meal is over, the hostess asks "casually" if anyone would like "a hit of coke."

The style begins to wear, until it dawns on the reader that the thought-bite-length episodes and the colorful descriptions are deliberate. The writing is a parody of Time's, and for a good reason. Time commands a readership of several million, so Time's style has a lot going for it. Baum has got the better of the Library of Congress Subject Indexer who put the book in a category chiefly of interest to police officials. The text, describing the torment that the War on Drugs has visited upon the country, is written in a manner that a wide range of readers will be comfortable with. Baum writes like Time, to say what Time will not.

Once the purpose of the style is grasped, a reader will recall that the title of the book is more than Smoke and Mirrors. There is the subtitle: The War on Drugs and the Politics of Failure. What does this mean? The War on Drugs -- that we know. What is the "Politics of Failure?" What kind of "failure" is Baum thinking of? Not, surely, the cliché : "Look at the billions spent on fighting drugs, and drugs are still as plentiful as ever." There is no actual failure there. The War on Drugs does not measure success by quantities of drugs seized so much as by numbers of drug users removed from circulation. In its own terms the Drug War is a success.

Failure. The word comes from the root fallere, as do false, and fault. The root meaning is deceive, depart from what is true. Then what is the politics of deceiving? Politics that has the purpose of deceiving? Politics that uses smoke and mirrors to confuse people? What would people see if there were not this smoke and mirrors contraption in the way? Is a policy that has deception as its purpose thinkable?

If it is, then the stage really has been set for a morality play. The old morality plays of the Middle Ages were allegories of the myth of temptation, sin, and redemption through a background Christ. The audience watched a procession of virtues and vices vying for the soul of Everyman. Behind the action, everybody knew, lurked the devil, trying out his wiles to win souls for himself ("Just say yes!"). The end was either hell through siding with the devil, or heaven through believing in Christ. Which side was better, Christ's or the devil's? Don't think the answer is obvious. The devil is a master of deception, skilled in the business of using smoke and mirrors. The devil, the biggest "failure" of them all, needs people to do his evil for him; evil is not something he can do alone. How to trick good people into doing evil on his behalf is the devil's constant challenge.

Baum's War on Drugs resembles an old-fashioned morality play but one acted in reality, not just on-stage. This may be why the text is terrifying at the same time that it is gentle. Baum wants the reader to contemplate the Drug War, not back off in alarm. The question is: Could the Drug War be the devil's work? Is the Crafty One out there, tempting America with his artful strategies? Has the government, unknowingly, taken orders from the devil? Has it been tricked into doing evil while all along proclaiming its intention to do good? Or, in mystery play fashion, is the government out to save America from the devil's wiles, playing the Savior role? How do you tell?

Mid-way through the book, after the story of Just Say No, Baum takes a hard look at the evidence. It is not hard to see which side of the morality debate he is on:

"Just Say No wasn't the worst part of the Reagan Drug War. It [the slogan] didn't put anybody in prison or diminish anybody's civil liberties. It didn't deploy armies of drug agents with inflated powers to wiretap and surveil. It didn't weaken the Fourth Amendment. It didn't ratchet up violence in the inner cities by fielding sweeps that disrupted volatile drug turfs and touched off gunfights. It didn't lead county officials to spend more on criminal justice than on education. It didn't dismantle a federally funded treatment system that took ten years to build. And it didn't jail people without trial, confiscate their property without due process, or deny them housing, student loans, or federal benefits.

"Just Say No did something [more] insidious. It finished [the] job of closing the debate. In fact, it reduced the debate to a single word. Don't talk about why people use drugs, the slogan said. Don't ask why Halcion and malt liquor are legal drugs while marijuana and cocaine are not. Don't talk about the difference between drug use and drug abuse. Don't talk about the tendency of prohibition to promote violence and the use of stronger and more dangerous drugs. Don't talk about the lives, taxpayer dollars, and civil liberties sacrificed for the Drug War. Don't talk about the culture and race wars waged under the Drug War battle flag. Don't talk about the medical potential of illegal drugs. Don't talk at all. Just say no."

Better not talk about the evil, that is; don't ask awkward questions

At the end of the book the narrative changes to first person. While attending a night drug court crowded with black people, the author feels a hand on his shoulder and recognizes Phil Mullane, a public defender. Mullane takes Baum to the top floor of the building. They look out on:

a kind of garishly lit industrial park that stretches to a distant highway and, beyond that, the blackness of Lake Michigan. Directly below is a window- less building topped with twinkling concertina wire. 'That's Cook County Jail,' Mullane says.

"What are all those buildings around it?" I ask.

"You misunderstand," he says. "That's all Cook County Jail. All the buildings you see between here and the highway. We have six times more people locked up than in the biggest prison in the United States. Twelve thousand. Aside from a few serving short sentences, all of them are waiting for trial and presumed innocent."

We're both silent for a minute, gazing down upon Chicago's penal neighbor- hood. "This is American justice at the end of the twentieth century," Mullane says. "I'll bet you feel safer already."

A masterful exposition of the universal theme of evil masquerading as good, Smoke and Mirrors deserves the nation's top literary prize.

drugwarprisoners review, July 1999