Drug War Prisoners

(At the time of posting, the war on Iraq is still a future prospect, not yet a present reality.)

In the aftermath of September 11, Congress passed a resolution authorizing President Bush to take all necessary steps to prevent a further terrorist attack. After dealing with Afghanistan, Bush turned his attention to Iraq. Bush declared that Iraq had failed to comply with its agreement to disarm at the end of the Gulf War and would be forcibly disarmed if it did not now comply. As it happened, a plan to take over Iraq had been in the works for more than a decade. An updated version of the plan was drafted by the present VP and Secretary of Defense among others and shelved when Clinton unexpectedly won the White House. The Cheney-Rumsfeld faction in the present Bush administration had a military takeover of Iraq on their agenda before the Republican victory in 2000. It took the panic following September 11 to move it to top place.

A group of radicals takes advantage of a state of universal panic to pressure Congress into granting it permission to proceed with a war on Iraq. The implication of this opportunism is that the average American, if not waiting in fear for the next blow to fall, and taking stock of Iraq’s threat to America in a realistic vein, would have withheld support from the radicals and prevailed on Congress to rein them in. Now it is too late, the radicals have the control they want, and the world waits for an unspeakable crime to begin.

Bush has given the public five reasons for a war on Iraq. They are: to disarm Saddam Hussein (“Saddam”), to liberate the Iraqi people, to avert risk to the home economy, to deny access of weapons of mass destruction to terrorists, and to protect the safety of the American public. These may be classed as the official reasons. Each runs into difficulty when examined closely.

Disarm Saddam: Saddam has had weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) in his possession since the end of the Gulf War. The WMDs include toxic gas, virulent organisms, nuclear devices, and their long-range delivery systems. Whether there is an intent to use them or not, Saddam’s possession of these weapons makes him a danger to world peace, and puts him in violation of the agreement with the UN reached at the end of the Gulf War. Saddam denies possession of such weapons, but those in the White House know better. Saddam is a liar.

Saddam’s possession of these WMDs makes him a danger to world peace. Perhaps, but how big is the threat? Suppose Saddam has the forbidden arsenal ready to go – but it has not gone. That suggests he is a reasonable man. He has not fired a rocket at, say, Israel and risked the instant retaliation that would result. He is not stupid, he is not foolhardy, he is not irrational. But if he is none of these, what threat does he pose to world or any peace, and why is it necessary to invade his territory?

Two replies are possible. One concedes that Saddam may not have WMDs ready to go now, but declares he will have soon. Saddam being the dangerous character he is, the aim is to prevent the completion of WMDs in the making, before it is too late. This has to be done with a preemptive strike.

The other reply accepts that Saddam has WMDs which he could use if he wanted to, and agrees that he has not used them, but argues that the man is so unstable that he cannot be trusted not to use them. A preemptive strike is necessary before Saddam goes off the deep end. This involves a reading of Saddam’s mind. But is it the correct reading? Saddam may be older and wiser now, perhaps as some have said dying of cancer, and in a mood to mind his own business and not bother other people. How do we know? Without knowing, it might be foolish to provoke Saddam. Granted that he is a psychopath, is
there any sense in provoking a psychopath? Going after him with a preemptive strike might be the wrong thing to do.

A more abstract difficulty is that whether Saddam has WMDs ready to go now or will have in the future is somewhat beside the point, since no one has decided which alternative needs proving. All we are told is that the proof is in, and that resort to a preemptive strike is justified. Bush expects the public to back his plan to invade Iraq without access to the evidence Bush himself has access to, which requires of the public the sort of devotion and trust normally thought owing to a tyrant. A major war is being embarked on and the public does not have access to the evidence?

A further difficulty is that the nature of the required proof changes from being a positive assertion that Saddam’s WMDs (or their progenitors) exist, to the negative assertion that it cannot be said for certain that they do not. Proof of the non-existence of something is more problematic than proof of its existence. Bush doubles back and forth between the two positions. He makes out he is certain that Saddam has the forbidden weapons (proof positive) and doubles back to argue that Saddam has failed to prove that he does not (proof negative). It would help if Bush did not want to have it both ways.

An additional possibility is that Saddam is not a liar in the first place, and does not have the weapons he is accused of having. Perhaps he wants to keep the enemy in suspense. Then neither aerial surveillance nor ground inspection will turn up the missing contraband. When Bush says the proof is in, Bush may be the one who lies. How do we tell?

Resort to a preemptive strike puts Bush in the awkward position of being a war criminal in the eyes of the United Nations. By international treaty, to which the US is a signatory, two grounds legitimize an attack by one government on another’s territory. One is self-defense against actual aggression – no room for a preemptive strike there. The other is authorization for an act of war by the UN itself. Short of reliance on one of these two grounds, an individual responsible for an act of war is liable to prosecution for war crimes in the International Count of Justice – a body Bush has made it known the US transcends. Efforts by the US to obtain the Security Council votes it needs to legitimize a war on Iraq suggest that Bush is not comfortable with the collar of war criminal around his neck. The confusion is one more aspect of the difficulty attached to the idea of “disarming Saddam.”

As to the question of Saddam’s violation of the agreement reached with the UN, this may concern some member governments – others might prefer to let sleeping dogs lie – but it is of no great concern to Bush, who has his own agenda and regrets the day he let the pushy Tony Blair butt in and talk him into taking the case to the UN. Without Blair’s interference, Bush would have been in Iraq long ago. The accusation that Saddam has violated his agreement with the UN and matters on that account, coming from Bush, is unconvincing.

That the reason for invading Iraq is to disarm Saddam, i.e. kill off Saddam, his government, his army, and his supporters with a preemptive strike, and/or enforce a decade-old agreement with the UN makes sense at best superficially. Too many loose ends and contradictions appear for the reason to be convincing.

Liberate the Iraqis: Bush’s next reason for invading Iraq is to relieve the Iraqi people of the rule of a bloodthirsty dictator and substitute the rule of democracy. We should imagine the Iraqi people flocking to the polls and electing representatives screened by Bush officials, once Saddam’s regime has been deposed. As mentioned, the problem is that removal of even a brutish dictator by outside force without UN consent violates a principle of international behavior. That photo-op of Bush addressing his troops with the send-off message that their mission was to “liberate” the Iraqi people must have struck some UN old-timers as off track. Ten or twenty years from now, or even tomorrow, someone else may decide to “liberate” the people of another country with a preemptive strike. Then against whom might that be? Cuba? Venezuela? Besides, there are bloodthirsty regimes Bush sides with unapologetically. Why the double standard, why pick on Saddam?

Avert risk to the economy: Bush once said that the economy would be hurt if Saddam “attacked.” Bush did not elaborate on what this meant or how it justified a war, which is as well, since the shaky state of the economy is attributed more plausibly to Bush’s own war moves than to Saddam’s intransigence. Left alone, it is hard to see what difference Iraq would make to the economy.

Deny access of WMDs to terrorists: Brought up more recently as a reason for invading Iraq is the need to prevent collusion between Saddam and international terrorists. This has always been the weakest part of Bush’s case. Saddam is reputed to want nothing to do with the Wahhabis, the sect of Islam from which Al Qaeda recruits its operatives. Proof of a connection between Saddam and international terrorism would be the talk of every journalist and politician. There is none. Secretary of State Powell as much as admitted he exaggerated when he linked Saddam to international terrorism before the Security Council. It would take a lot to persuade a reasonable person that Saddam would choose to be branded an international terrorist. Why export terrorism, when, if the stories about him are true, he can be all the terrorist he wants at home?

Protect the safety of the American people: To protect the safety of the American people is the reason Bush falls back on when the weakness of his other reasons for invading Iraq is exposed. Protecting the safety of the American people means keeping terrorists at bay, but the connection between keeping terrorists at bay and launching a war on Iraq is not self-evident. Bush raised the threat of a group of terrorists on board a ship near the US coast, eluding surveillance and lobbing WMDs into the heartland. Preventing terrorists from acquiring WMDs is reasonable goal, but creating havoc in Iraq is not a reasonable way to set about it.

Empire building: Apart from official reasons for invading Iraq, there are others that may be called unofficial. A reason is unofficial if, while it may strike a chord in some sections of the public, a taboo prohibits its mention in official circles. For example, a plan to invade Iraq for the purpose of installing democracy, and run the country on the model of post-war occupied Japan, is safe to mention, since no one expects the Iraqis to acquire democratic habits right away. What could not be mentioned at a White House press conference is that the reconstruction of Iraq could be undertaken for a different purpose, namely to convert Iraq into a possession or colony for use as a base for further penetration of the region. This is not to say that the idea does not come up for discussion in Administration circles – sub rosa, it must – only that its expression by the Administration in a public forum would violate a taboo and shock conventional opinion worldwide.

Oil: A related reason on the unofficial level is that a war on Iraq, if it comes, will be “all about oil.” The argument is that Iraq sits on the world’s second largest supply of oil and Bush has to get there first before the supply runs out. From an economic standpoint, the argument does not make complete sense. The industry is well represented in the Bush administration and has a natural interest in Iraqi oil. But the US and the West have Persian Gulf states in their pocket, OPEC will deliver no matter what happens in Iraq, oil flows out of Iraq anyway, in the amount of two million barrels a day, and it would surely not be difficult to cozy up to Saddam and make a deal. Bush says he will take Iraqi oil by way of reparations to pay down the cost of invasion and military occupation. But why go to the trouble of invading and occupying Iraq in the first place?

An argument from the standpoint of oil politics makes greater sense. It too cannot be announced officially, but, by their own admission in former publications, it is known to dominate the thinking of Bush administration radicals. Well before 2000, the Cheney-Rumsfeld faction was arguing for a take-over of Iraq, and if necessary Saudi Arabia, to put the US in a position where it will exert a stranglehold on oil flows worldwide. US control of the policies of governments of other oil dependent nations will then be assured for as long as supplies last. For the radicals, the cost of an invasion may seem a small price to pay for this advantage.

Weapons testing: Other unofficial reasons for a war on Iraq are conceivable: for example, Pentagon officials offer to field test weapons and refine psy-ops (psychological operations) in a war that carries no risk of defeat. As a surreptitious reason for invading Iraq, this is less plausible that the politics of empire building or control of oil supplies, but cannot be conclusively dismissed. The influence of unofficial reasons on White House planning is subject to speculation; however, only the most plausible, because documented by their authors, are worth paying close attention to.

Finish the job: An exception to the observation noted above is the argument that the President has a job to finish. A slur on the dignity of his office, but nonetheless sometimes brought up as a reason for invading Iraq is that George Bush junior will finish the job George Bush senior did not complete, that is undertake the march north to Baghdad, from a motive more psychological than political. The notion of Bush invading Iraq out of filial duty is scarcely credible, but as has been noted, the real “George W. Bush” is an unknown quantity; no one knows the man behind the mask. How much “ego” tempts Bush to invade Iraq is a question that may be set aside for the moment.

To sum up: Official reasons for staging an invasion of Iraq – reasons it is politically correct to advance in public – consist in repelling the danger to “the world, the region, and the United States” posed in various forms by Saddam, and in bringing democracy to the people of Iraq. On inquiry, the official reasons turn out to be unconvincing, certainly too little convincing to warrant the infliction on the Iraqi people of the calamity Bush has in store for them. The effect of the insufficiency of the reasons proposed on an official level is creation of a rift between a less critical section of the public which takes the President’s reasons at face value and accepts the justice of a war on Iraq without further proof, and a more critical section of the public which writes off the official reasons as mere rhetoric, propaganda reiterated to swing public opinion in the desired direction and impossible to credit as the motives driving the Administration. Not even Bush himself can take each of the official reasons seriously.

In contrast, there are unofficial reasons – not part of official discourse and spoken of behind closed doors – which by default are the reasons which shape Administration policy. From the standpoint of the Cheney-Rumsfeld faction, control of world affairs through imperialist adventures and pinching the supply of oil as required provides an excellent reason for the invasion and subjugation of Iraq. Pursuit of this aim, however, carries an enormous risk. The image of a benevolent America, regulating the affairs of other countries for the most part by peaceful means, suppressing discontent only where necessary, is compromised by the specter of an America on the rampage, determined to impose its will by force wherever and whenever it so chooses. To ring in the era of the new American Empire with an explosion of the force of an atomic bomb will guarantee for the US a century of hate abroad. That may not worry Bush. But the end of America’s reputation as a loving nation – who would hold their head up and say proud to be an American after this? but let that pass – is not the only consequence to reckon with. The effect of Bush’s misadventure will be to stir a section of the American public into revolt against a government that commits a crime of this magnitude in its name. Bush either does not know or does not care that for many Americans he lives in a dream world, is far from representing the ideal for which America is supposed to stand. If Bush steps over the line and invades Iraq, he faces the risk of a backlash of revolutionary proportions. Bush says he wants a regime change in Iraq. What happens if a sizeable number of Americans decide it is time for a regime change at home?

In the sense that the violent invasion of Iraq Bush promises is liable to result in an outcome the opposite to that intended, the Cheney-Rumsfeld policy is irrational. We face a double paradox. The reasons for a war on Iraq of which it is possible to speak publicly are unconvincing and play little or no part in determining official policy; while reasons of which it is not possible to speak publicly are by default the determinants of official policy. Second, those unofficial reasons which shape official policy will in the long run prove counterproductive, and their pursuit is in that sense irrational. From the latter observation it follows that the thinking of the Bush administration is irrational, and it behooves us to locate the source of that irrationality. What blinds the radical faction to the futility of their own thinking?

An additional question to do with the psychology of George W. Bush is set aside for later consideration.

The War on Drugs: The stage is set for a discussion of the War on Drugs. Official reasons for the War on Drugs are less easy to pinpoint than official reasons for a war on Iraq. The War on Drugs has been going on for so long that many do not remember a time a time without it. Few stop to wrestle with the reasons for the War on Drugs as a result. The common sense position is that drug use causes death, physical disability, impaired social functioning, and addiction, and that the state as guardian of the public interest has the right to control drug use to the extent possible. Restoration of law and order is cited as a reason in this connection too. Common sense reasons are what a politician or other public figure with an interest in maintaining the War on Drugs would come up with if asked to justify the cost of this expensive operation, and what a member of the public not well informed on background issues would agree made sense. Common sense reasons for the War on Drugs are reasons which are stated publicly, and correspond to the official reasons for a war on Iraq; they serve as official reasons for the War on Drugs.

Evaluation of the official reasons listed above – that drug use causes death, physical disability, impaired social functioning, addiction, and by implication disregard of law and order – reveals the same discrepancy that is evident in an evaluation of official reasons for a war on Iraq. Both sets of reasons are insufficiently convincing to justify the carnage that is their consequence. In the case of the War on Drugs, either unthinking tradition keeps the Drug War going despite its irrelevance to professed aims, or there are “unofficial” reasons at work behind the scenes – or both.

Of the possible “unofficial” reasons for the War on Drugs, three considered here are: to engage in covert racism; to win control of governments of countries where drugs are grown or produced; and, in a category of its own, to combat evil. As was the case with unofficial reasons for a war on Iraq, these too belong in the realm of speculation, and in their own way are irrational.

Drug War officials jumped on the bandwagon after September 11 and invented the idea of a causal link between drug use and terrorism – to widespread ridicule. That a reason for subjecting the nation to the War on Drugs is to curb the terrorist menace is considered too far-fetched to be worth serious attention.

Drugs cause death: People grant the government power to regulate the use of substances consumed not for nutritional but for a wide range of other purposes, including medicinal and social or cultural. The use of medicinal substances – drugs in the pharmacological sense – carries a substantial risk. 100,000 people in the United States are said to die from the side effects of prescription drugs annually, often needlessly. The use of non-medicinal substances – “drugs” in the colloquial sense, connoting illegality – carries a less substantial risk. At most, 5000 deaths can be attributed to the use of illegal drugs annually, a casualty rate of the same order as deaths due to the careless use of aspirin. Regardless of how many or how few deaths occur as a result of illegal drug use, the government can be expected to take steps to minimize the incidence of death from illegal drug use.

This does not happen. Many of the 5000 deaths which follow consumption of an illegal drug could be prevented. The presence of a impurity may result in collapse and death. Ignorance of the strength of a sample may result in fatal overdose. In certain countries the policy of harm reduction has shown that such deaths can be prevented by proper identification of a drug and provision of facilities for safe ingestion. In the United States, the agency responsible for regulating the use of illegal drugs does not recognize the value of harm reduction. For a supporter of the Drug War, to make life safer for a user would “give the wrong message.” Perversely, power granted to a government to prevent unnecessary death is used to maximize the death rate among users.

Drugs cause physical disability and impaired social functioning: Disruption of social relationships is cited as a hazard of illegal drug use. How much faith to place in arguments to the effect that drug use wrecks social relationships is uncertain, for various reasons, among them the effect of the violence done to people who use illegal drugs, independent of the effect of drug use itself; and the large number of users whose use escapes detection. In the latter case there is no reason to suppose that illegal drug use harms social functioning. The charge would be impossible to prove. What would not hard be to prove is that the Drug War does more harm than drug use itself.

Drugs cause addiction: The use of some drugs in the illegal category is addictive. The use of some other drugs is not. Four per cent of a population is prone to addiction. Proneness to drug addiction is likely part of a character disorder with more general features. In defiance of science and contrary to common knowledge, the official word of the Drug War bureaucracy is that all drug use is addictive, marijuana use as much so as any. Drug War advocates ignore the fact that among those who use an illegal drug some do so sensibly, for pleasure, for increasing alertness, for self-medication, or for some other potentially useful or life-enhancing purpose that does not lead to addiction.

The dogma that marijuana use is addictive has doubly unfortunate consequences. That an official like the present Drug Czar can decide by fiat, in defiance of science and commissions of inquiry attesting to the opposite, that marijuana is addictive tells the many users of marijuana in this country and abroad that the head of the Office of National Drug Control Administration is a liar. If an official of the US government lies on this subject, on what other subjects may lying not be the custom, and in what other departments of government may lying not be a convenient way to fend off public criticism? That a reason for pursuing the War on Drugs is the addictive capacity of marijuana accounts for the arrest of more than three quarters of a million marijuana users in the United States annually, many for simple possession, some headed for life in prison. That makes a mockery of the argument for law and order which follows.

To restore law and order: Politicians and other officials with an vested interest in perpetuation of the War on Drugs continue to place restoration of law and order on the list of reasons, although in reality it has not provided a cogent reason for the War on Drugs for many years.

The use of certain drugs has been banned for a century, but the first call for war came from President Johnson in his 1964 State of the Union address. The reference was to the widespread use of LSD (then legal) by students and others participating in the protests of the sixties. Johnson lost his hold on power in the debacle of the 1968 Democratic convention, when tear gas used to subdue “dope-smoking” protesters wafted into the convention chamber. The War on Drugs was escalating but had still not got into high gear.

President Nixon won the 1968 election by default. Nixon brought to the presidency a phobia of drug use, specifically of marijuana use. There is a story of Nixon’s campaign bus running a gauntlet of protesters on the return trip from a talk given by Nixon at UC Santa Cruz. A two mile stretch of highway was lined with rock throwing students and others who in this manner vented their hatred of Nixon and everything he stood for. Nixon’s reaction to marijuana was, not surprisingly, set for life. It was also pathological, as tapes of Nixon’s reaction to the Shafer commission report show. No significant new legislation was passed in the Nixon period, but the harshness of the treatment of drug users of all kinds increased with a vengeance. The War on Drugs was heating up.

Taking a cue from Nixon, President Reagan convinced the nation that drug use and drug users undermined the authority of the federal government. Under Reagan, the full fury of the state was directed against drug users. Restoration of law and order became a byword. Victory in what was now a full-fledged War on Drugs became a national obsession.

In 1968, midway through Reagan’s second term, panic swept the country in the wake of the death from a drug overdose of the basketball player Len Bias. Within days, legislation drafted and in place on Reagan’s desk for the occurrence of just such an occasion, went to Congress for enactment. Congress added some minor changes to the Reagan text, and passed it otherwise as-is under the title Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986. A new phase of the War on Drugs had started, and the population of Drug War prisoners soared accordingly.

By the time the first Bush was elected, the War on Drugs had become a tradition, filling a comfortable niche in American society, seemingly impossible to stop. Laser rifles, helicopters, and armored vehicles were by now standard police issue. SWAT teams forced their way into the homes of drug users at night, consummating arrests with terrifying violence, throwing women to the floor, shooting the pet dog, leaving children with recurrent nightmares for years to come. Legislators thought up laws to cover any conceivable connection with illegal drug use. Picking up the phone at the wrong place and time could and still can lead to a ten or twenty year sentence.

During this reenactment of Prohibition, which continues to the present, the obsession with restoring law and order faded. The Drug War went on, regardless of the fact that opposition to the authority of the government by Nixon-era drug users was no longer a threat that counted in reality. In any case, the issue of law and order has no connection with drug use per se. Left alone, the majority of users will cause no one any trouble. The majority of users are as law-abiding as non-users, except for the fact of their use of an illegal drug.

To engage in covert racism: That a reason for cooperating in the War on Drugs could be to engage in covert racism, that is racism practiced under the cloak of the War on Drugs by one who in doing so incurs no loss of respectability, is an abhorrent notion. The suggestion that the War on Drugs is a cover for naked racism will be resented by many. Yet the figures are on the side of it. Black Drug War prisoners comprise more than half of all state prisoners in the United States, yet blacks in proportion to the rest of the population make up 12 percent; and blacks are no more prone to drug use than non-blacks. Of women Drug War prisoners, more black women suffer life imprisonment than women who are not black, and the same is probably true of men Drug War prisoners. Black Drug War prisoners in the workshops of the prison world, working for 10 or 15 cents an hour if one is lucky – have no trouble seeing through the disguise. The recrudescence of slavery in the form of the War on Drugs is obvious. Enjoyment of the practice of racism in its newly respectable form could not be the sole reason for the War on Drugs – no reason could be that – but the racist angle helps to account for the vigor with which black drug users are prosecuted.

To win control of governments of countries where drugs are grown or produced: That a reason for engaging in the War on Drugs could be to win control of governments of countries where drugs are grown or produced is likewise an abhorrent suggestion, and one with a good deal of evidence to support it. Countries in Central America which fit this description have human rights records as bad as any on the planet. Agents of the governments responsible for atrocities committed in these target countries are armed and trained by the United States, ostensibly to root out the growth and production of illegal drugs, but in reality in the view of many to win control over the territories in question. Like covert racism, winning control of foreign territories to serve the interests of the US is a function for which the War on Drugs provides a useful cover.

A comparison of reasons for the pending war on Iraq and reasons for the ongoing War on Drugs comes down to the following: Official reasons for a war on Iraq are not judged as credible by many Americans and do not justify the end for which they are the means; and common sense or official reasons for the War on Drugs are likewise inconsistent with the results to which they are professed to aim. Official reasons for a war on Iraq are insufficient to account for the dynamic which propels the Administration on its path to war; and common sense or official reasons for the War on Drugs do not explain the compulsion, no less strong today than in Reagan’s presidency, to struggle until victory is reached. “Unofficial” reasons postulated for a war on Iraq make sense from the standpoint of a radical constituency in the White House; and unofficial reasons postulated for the War on Drugs are not implausibly believed to account in part for the prosecution of this war. The rosy picture painted by the Cheney-Rumsfeld faction is based on calculations which are irrational; and the end of the War on Drugs (foreseen in such imaginary depictions as a “drug-free America”) is similarly irrational.

To combat evil: The War on Drugs can be interpreted as a manifestation of the strand of Puritanism which forms one half of the American psyche (the other half being the Rational), and the reason for seeking victory in the War on Drugs can be interpreted as an expression of the religious principle of combating evil, a pillar of Puritan ideology.

Puritan settlers who reached the New World embraced an idea of God modeled on the God of the Old Testament. They formed a “New Covenant” with God, according to which God promised protection if members of the community adhered to certain rules; and warned of serious consequences if they did not. A member of the Puritan community had to be on the lookout for transgressors; wrong doing by one meant disaster for all. The community was open to contamination by acts of a wrong doer, which called for drastic punishment.

The principle of protecting the community from contamination is recognizable in the treatment of drug users today. Drug use contaminates the community, and must be rooted out no matter how, if with the help of spies and informants then so much the better – the community will put its best foot forward. The harshest punishment possible for the user of an illegal drug is necessary to remove that user from the community and avert God’s wrath. Banishment of the user to a foreign country’s prison system, e.g. Mexico’s, has been suggested as a possible remedy by a Southern legislator. Mere acquaintance of a user qualifies as conspiracy and subjects the hapless friend or family member, likewise contaminated, to the same penalty as that thrust on the user. The “dealer” of urban legend is that nefarious character who skulks around neighborhood schools and lures kids into sampling his powders and capsules. All too clearly, the concept of evil, which is a religious concept, colors the thinking of the Drug War enthusiast, and compels a characterization of that thinking as irrational.

Protection from the evil visited on the community by drugs and their users compares with protection from the evil visited upon “the world” by Saddam. Saddam belongs in Bush iconography as an instrument of the devil, parlaying the devil’s ways. For Bush, Saddam is the liar, the wily one, the trickster who fools the UN and its inspectors and tempts foreign governments to take his side. Bush grows impatient at the procrastination of foreign governments when this manifestation of the Evil One stares them in the face. Bush gave as a reason for invading Iraq in his State of the Union address the need to rid “the world” of the evil of Saddam. Reciting a list of things Saddam reportedly had done, Bush said to applause that if this was not evil he did not know what was.

A case has been made for a parallel between the pending war on Iraq and the long-standing War on Drugs with regard to reasons given for the wars in question and an irrational core of each. It remains to be shown that the irrational core is the same in both instances.

Discussion may now return to the person of George W. Bush.

Bush: It is common knowledge that Bush and influential members of his cabinet subscribe to the principles of fundamentalist religion. Bush at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington spoke of the absence of fate or chance in the chains of events that make up history. Nothing happens by chance, he said; events are managed by the hand of God. A well-informed commentator wrote that Bush believes himself to be the servant of God’s will. Bush went so far as to reveal at a news conference that he prays daily for God’s guidance. A report appearing in the New York Times on March 9 under the heading that Bush “sees the world as a biblical struggle of good versus evil,” and has “never expressed any misgivings, or personal vulnerabilities, about going to war against Saddam Hussein,” noted that people on meeting Bush come away with the impression that he is “impervious to doubt.” They are struck by his “tranquillity” and “amazing calm.” The question for us is where the source of this certainty, tranquillity, and amazing calm resides.

Bush was converted to the tenets of fundamentalist religion by Billy Graham, as a measure to save him from dissolute indulgence in cocaine and alcohol. Graham preaches a literal interpretation of the apocalyptic Book of Revelation, which tells of the Second Coming, the Day of Judgment, the End of Days, the Rapture, the casting down of Satan, the 1000 year reign of peace – not necessarily in that order; teachings differ. The premise of the Book of Revelation is destruction of the city of Babylon, whose end is described in fearsome detail. Babylon, today a ruin 55 miles southeast of Baghdad, had been the capital of ancient Babylonia, the empire situated between Assyria (modern Turkey) to the north and Persia (modern Iran) to the east. Suppose the imagination of the President is captured by Graham’s literal interpretation of Revelation? What if Baghdad today falls under the shadow of old Babylon?

Revelation has Babylon waiting to be hit hard:

… a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood … the sky vanished like a scroll that is rolled up

Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great, she who made the nations drink the wine of her impure passion.

Demonic spirits … assembled… at the place which is called … Armageddon.

… scarlet beast … blasphemous names … Babylon the great mother of harlots and of earth’s abominations.

Babylon … the dwelling place of demons …

So shall Babylon the great city be thrown down with violence and shall be found no more

… an angel … seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the Devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years … that he should deceive the nations no more …

The question is to what extent the imagination of the President is in thrall to this religious ideology – a question perhaps not even people at the top can know but which it is prudent to consider. There is the odd pairing of modern and ancient symbols which appears in Bush doctrine: the seven rogue states (Iraq, Iran, and North Korea, coupled in the litany with Syria, Lebanon, Libya, and Cuba); and the seven seals, seven trumpets, seven visions of Revelation and other symbolic sevens in the Bible. There is the ominous duration of the War on Terrorism – 40 years it was said to last by Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld; and the 40 days and 40 nights of Noah’s flood, 40 steps on Jacob’s ladder, 40 years in the wilderness, and other corresponding 40s in the Bible. Why a war on terrorism lasting just 40 years?

There is the profane display of Bush’s image – the pre-election photo of Bush in front of a wall-size painting of a disheveled-looking Jesus, arms outstretched in imitation; the post-election photo of Bush, head ringed by the Great Seal of the United States, the seal unfocused, fuzzy, suggestive of a halo.

Suppose Bush is infatuated with the desire to “act out” the drama of Revelation; he listens to an inner voice which says to go ahead and make the Day of Judgment come. You have the power, it tells him; you are Commander-in-Chief; by yourself you can lift the phone, destroy Babylon in seconds, fulfill prophecy, bind Satan for a thousand years, bring in the reign of peace. Is this a credible explanation of Bush’s hunger for a war on Iraq, and the “amazing calm” with which he contemplates it?

To emulate the angel who sets Babylon on fire is an option with obvious psychological appeal. Demonizing Saddam sets up Saddam for the preemptive strike that rids the world of evil, literally and not just symbolically. The occupation of Iraq and installation of democracy ushers in 1000 years of peace, a remake of Iraq in the image of America. Fear of letting go the opportunity to fulfill prophecy explains the rush to begin operations before opportunity slips away, and the anger at the UN veto exercised by Rational France. The evidence is fragmentary and incomplete, but it suggests that compulsive acting-out of prophecy is the ultimate reason Bush has for invading Iraq.

One war or two? The question was asked at the beginning. The Puritan’s obsession with the evil posed by the presence of drugs in the community and the obsession with ridding the world of the evil posed by Saddam is at bottom the same obsession. The demonization of drugs and their users is the same projective operation as the demonization of Saddam. The violence directed at the in the main peaceful and inoffensive drug user matches the violence in store for Saddam. The fantasy of a “drug-free America” matches the fantasy of the New America in store for Iraq. The failure of official reasons to justify the War on Drugs equals the failure of official reasons to justify a war on Iraq, and explains the vacuum into which rush unofficial reasons from both sides. Unofficial reasons for the War on Drugs and unofficial reasons for a war on Iraq may not coincide – covert racism is not overt racism – but both are in some sense irrational. The War on Drugs and the pending war on Iraq fit nicely in the paradigm of Puritan America.

Today it can be heard with increasing frequency that the War on Drugs is a “failure,” albeit a failure with no end in sight, destined to go on for ever (if not arrested by a revolution). Ten years from now, if Bush has his way, he and the circle of advisors who whisper words of encouragement in his ear will too hear the dark refrain: the war on Iraq is a “failure,” no end to it in sight, no possible means of extrication from it (short of revolution on the home front), beyond anyone’s comprehension or ability to do anything about. By that time, everyone will be wearing a black armband.

Drug War Talk, Winter 2003: The Committee on Unjust Sentencing

With thanks to prisoners of the War on Drugs whose correspondence made this compilation possible. Note: views expressed in the conconcluding section are not necessarily those of every correspondent.




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