Drug War Prisoners

"Addicted to Fundamentalism" - Letter from Germany and Response

A college student in Frankfurt, Germany writes:

"In a class discussion we have discussed why in America are so many people in prison. Is that because in America the people are more evil than in Germany? That I do not believe. Our teacher has suggested for the reason to be your war on drugs. We have read some letters from your prisoners in your drugwarprisoners punkt org web site, which are outstanding and amazing. Please, thank your prisoners for our education. Moreover, our teacher has suggested for the reason to be your government which is addicted to the religion of fundamentalism, which is most extreme. This fundamentalism is not possible to help for the government of your country. For it is the fundamentalism addiction of your government which is the evil, not true?

"I do not wish to say that I enjoy the use of any drugs, but that is not the case for my friends, who enjoy the use of cannabis and more other drugs when the opportunity is coming on the weekend. In any case the use of any drug is for the business of the individual to choose, not true? In Germany we are very conscious of the business of the individual to choose decisions for the right and wrong of existence. I have respected America, which is the country of freedom. Now I have changed my idea. Now it is America which is the country of the prison, and Germany which is the country of the free people. Do you believe that the "American Dream" is a lie, a bad falsehood? My friend exclaims that he does not wish to experience an "American Dream" and to waken in the morning in the prison, as so many of your people in America waken. It is not good that America is the prison-country. I do not have respect for the extremism of your fundamentalism, which is the reason for the prison-fashion in your country.

"Please take the liberty to post this letter on your web site. Moreover, please send many greetings to your drugwarprisoners, from the people of the German nation."

The letter ends: "With many greetings, Annaliese Brandt"

The following response was sent to the writer:

Dear Annaliese,

Many thanks for your letter and greetings to you also. It is significant that a discussion of the kind you describe should take place in a classroom setting in your country. A college instructor in the United States who dared to suggest a connection between the War on Drugs and an "addiction to fundamentalism" would cause angry complaints and find himself or herself suspended as unfit to teach pending outcome of an official inquiry - of this there can be little doubt.

People who have read your letter, including some Drug War prisoners, would like to congratulate you and your friends for your forthright attitude to drug use - you raise the important question of personal freedom - and to congratulate your instructor for also raising an important question, one not many people in the United States wish to consider, though it is a question about the intrusion of religious doctrine into official policy and about justice. Evidently, it is easier to talk about this in Germany than in today's United States.

Though it would be "politically incorrect" to say this at home, there is evidence which supports a connection between the ideology of fundamentalism and the thinking of a government which "warehouses" - that is what prisoners call it - half a million drug users for extremely long periods of time, under extremely harsh conditions, in the jails and prisons of America.

(It would be politically incorrect, because to suggest such a connection is to suggest breach of a principle which is fundamental to the idea of government in the United States, the principle of church-state separation. To accuse a government official of breach of the principle of church-state separation would be to accuse the official of contempt of the Constitution - a "no-no.")

Yet take the action of President Bush in distributing money raised from taxation to fundamentalist church groups in Texas (and presumably elsewhere) that profess to cure drug addicts of their addictions, while not only non-church groups in the same business but non-fundamentalist church groups fail to qualify. If that is not crossing the line of church-state separation, it is getting close.

Or take the President's use of the word "evil." The Bush line is that drug users are the same as terrorists, and terrorists are evil. You are being told that drug use is evil. What is the purpose of this talk?

Calling something evil imputes not just a moral wrong, but a wrong judged to be such by God. In English, perhaps also in German, "evil" connotes the supernatural or divine. There is the "evil eye" which casts a spell on someone; the "King's evil" which was used to heal scrofula; the "Evil One" who rules in the nether regions; the prayer "Deliver us from evil" - "evil" fits into the vocabulary of religion but sounds awkward coming from another source. Perhaps your instructor felt uneasy at the President's use of the word.

The trouble with calling something evil - here we are getting closer to the relation between the Drug War and religion - is that, evil being God's business, the punishment for evil insofar as it rests with man to administer is never adequate. Punishment for drug use insofar as it is up to man to deliver progresses, for those who think this way, in one direction only. From the standpoint of one being punished, the punishment gets worse and worse. From the standpoint of one imposing the punishment it gets - a difficulty emerges here: just what is the aim of ever-escalating punishment? Who benefits? Since passage of the Reagan Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 and subsequent measures, legislation in Congress and state legislatures across the country has leapt from one extreme of harshness to another. What is it hoped that this accomplishes?

Compared to the punishment imposed for "ordinary" criminal offenses, the punishment imposed for drug-related offenses is extreme by any standard. Drug War prisoners are familiar with the game plan. Here is a scenario that a Drug War prisoner passed on. Prisoners after conviction spend a year in county jail awaiting sentence to a final prison destination. The day for the appearance in court arrives. A batch of prisoners is transported to the court and back again. The question on arrival back is "How much time did you get?" Five years, seven years: a Drug War prisoner reasons that the offense is theft, or assault, or murder even, but not an offense related to the use of drugs. In comes another prisoner, and this time the report is ten years, twenty years, forty years, life: now the assumption, usually correct, is that the offense is drug-related. (The exception is the case of an informant who has given "substantial assistance" to a prosecutor in exchange for no or a relatively short time in prison - but that is another story.)

Last month a Drug War prisoner wrote to the Committee on Unjust Sentencing: "I do nothing but legal work every waking minute. I even dream about it. It is for Santra's case. She's the girl with 13 life sentences, plus 480 months, plus another 480 months, plus 240 months. Lots of the testimony is conflicting and simply ridiculous in places. It's unbelievable." (Please note that "13 life sentences" is not a misprint!)

Extremist sentencing is bound to be irrational and unjust, as any public policy carried to an extreme must be. If your instructor has access to a copy of the United States Sentencing Commission's book of guidelines, tell him (or her) to look at Amendment 488. It admits the disproportionate sentencing prescribed at the time (1993) for offenses relating to the use of LSD. The Sentencing Commission spelled out the disproportion in detail, accepting that sentences for LSD use were irrational and hence unjust. A reasonable person would say the same of Drug War sentences in general. Where there is extremism there is irrationality, and consequently injustice.

Bush's putting drug use on the same plane as terrorism and tarring terrorism with the brush of evil moves the day closer when execution for drug use is a reality. If drug use is on a par with terrorism, and the punishment for terrorism is death, no logic stands in the way of punishing drug use with death. As in Saudi-Arabia, China, and other exemplary states, so in America, we may be hearing.

(For your information, the word "use" when it is used on this web site stands for possession, distribution, manufacture, possession with intent to distribute, conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute, and so on - a galaxy of offenses created to serve the end of prosecution. It does not refer to taking, smoking, shooting, or otherwise ingesting an illegal drug.)

Propaganda that equates drug use with terrorism pushes closer to reality extremist measures that once could be dismissed as fantasy. For some years, Southern legislators have mooted the possibility of segregating convicted drug users in prisons outside the United States as a way to quarantine them from the rest of the American population. Mexico might make a suitable location, also some extremely cold part of the world where users would suffer from the low temperature. Other suggestions have included amputation of a convicted user's limb in exchange for lifting the threat of prison, and similarly "voluntary" donation of a kidney.

You say, "This is impossible. Where is the proof of such a crazy thing?" Well, it is on public record and may be verified. The point is: fantasy can become reality. What is an unimaginable extreme one day may slip into reality the next.

So much for the extremist character of the punishment authorized for drug use in this country. The question your instructor has raised is how this extremism relates, if it does, to the set of regulative ideas and emotions (ideology) characteristic of fundamentalist religion. As a start, it can be said that fundamentalism shares the characteristics of extremism, irrationality, and injustice that we have seen apply to orthodox thinking on the legitimacy of punishment for drug use. Fundamentalist religion is also beset by a terrifying nearness of evil; it is preoccupied with the idea of Satan, and is comforted by the polar opposite of nearness to God. Between the two extremes, God and the devil, righteous and evil acts, salvation in heaven and torture in hell is no middle ground. Fundamentalism is a religion of absolutes.

Fundamentalist religion in America, however, has special features which distinguish it from other fundamentalist religions. These features reflect the arrival of the Puritan settlers in the "New World" 400 years ago. You probably know the story, but it is worth repeating.

The Puritans were fundamentalists who left England to escape persecution (mild by modern standards) aimed at them by decidedly non-Puritan officials of the English church and state. Success of the emigration to a new (cold!) and dangerous environment required an agreement with God modeled on the covenant between the God of Israel and the Israelites described in the Bible. The Puritans called this their "New Covenant." Under its terms - this is an oversimplification but it will do - God would protect the Puritans if the Puritans obeyed God's "rules" to the letter. Because, following the model, the entire community suffers punishment for a single individual's transgression, the punishment for even a small offense must be extremely harsh, to act as a deterrent and to protect the community from future punishment.

But, you say, what does it matter, if all this happened 400 years ago? Didn't the Revolution and the founding of the United States 200 years later take the punch out of a primitive religious doctrine? Unfortunately, it did not. The ideology of Enlightenment rationalism which founded the Republic and the ideology of Puritan fundamentalism coexist and do not mix. The two are incompatible - the one extremist, irrational, and any reasonable measure prone to injustice; the other moderate because willing to tolerate differences and seeking compromise, rational because open to persuasion and argument, and friendly to justice because a society not based justice is, put briefly, corrupt and not worth living in. US history - again, an oversimplification but it will do - goes up and down like a see-saw: first the rational side is up, then the fundamentalist and back again, the fundamentalist side being currently on top.

Fundamentalism started on a resurgence 100 years ago with the publication of a set of "Protocols". Criticism of the Bible as history instead of its acceptance as God's literal word was henceforth out. Unconsciously at first, the Puritan's New Covenant was coming back. The first wave of Drug War legislation followed soon after with the Harrison Act of 1914. Alcohol Prohibition followed in 1919. The Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 restored respectability to Prohibition, extremist thinking having fostered the myth of "reefer madness" which persists as official doctrine to this day. America's "Moral Majority" hammered away at the evil of drug use in the homeland, preparing the way for the election of President Reagan. Extremist measures incorporated in Reagan's 1986 drug act continued to multiply in harshness, until we arrive at the present with Bush's pronouncements on the evil of drug use - a transgression of God's rule, who can say?

We are dealing with the infiltration of fundamentalist ideology into the rationality prescribed for the Republic 200 years ago, with an effective a melt-down of the principle of church-state separation. For this historical accident, the prisoners of the Drug War - among others in and well beyond American society - pay the price. The Bush Administration's move to ratchet up the Drug War to a new level of intensity - for this is what is happening - sets the stage for yet greater extremism, irrationality, and injustice. So yes, you have a point when you think of fundamentalism as "the reason for the prison-fashion in your country." Five hundred thousand prisoners of the War on Drugs today: one million, two million tomorrow. Why not? The first President Bush announced to a nation of potential drug users, "Don't think we won't make room for you in prison" - or words to that effect. The second President Bush carries the torch.

Your letter does not say where your discussion led, or for that matter the course you are taking and the subject: history? sociology? - it would be interesting to know. You do not say if you or your friends arrived at a solution to the problem we face.

One thing that follows from locating the core of the problem in Puritan idealizing is what not to do in terms of a solution. What not to do is hide under the covers and pretend the sickness lies elsewhere than where it does. A change in Drug War policy will not come from an appeal to reason on the part of officials committed to an ideology which embraces the irrational. So, for example, to plead for legal recognition of the different characteristics of drug use - some beneficial to a user, some neutral, some liable to cause harm - by officials who make no secret of their adherence to fundamentalist religion is to ask for the impossible. All drug use in their view is evil, and equally evil. For them, talk of a beneficial or even neutral use of drugs is absurd, incomprehensible. Sad but true, the policy of harm reduction popular in your country cannot receive a hearing here. (It would be "giving the wrong message.")

Suppose, however, one thinks in terms of grabbling the see-saw and shoving it back to the position where the side of rationality is on top. Getting the rational side of the American "psyche" back in control would set the stage for a different attitude to drug use and problems drug use can cause. Doing this may not be as difficult as it may appear. All it may take is formation of a new attitude. Suppose the public learns to recognize the mix of extremism, irrationality, and injustice which characterizes the War on Drugs and repudiates it as un-American. Suppose the word gets around that America has been "had," - meaning deceived - and that the time has come for common sense and reason. Suppose the public learns the truth about the prisoners of the War on Drugs and decides: "In the name of the Republic, let these people go!" Suppose there is a renewal of the spirit of the Republic, a Thomas Jefferson is waiting to take office!

A properly informed public is the precondition of a change in public policy. A change in public policy will not come from a government committed to doing more of the same. Your letter helped to clarify the precondition. Should you visit America one day, let's hope the United States you find is again the great Republic it once was!

Spring 2002: Drug War Talk
The Committee on Unjust Sentencing





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