Thursday, 20 October 2011

Did history really start on 9/11?

The word in White House at the time was that it did, and it goes some way towards explaining why the lessons of history were so spectacularly ignored in the years that followed.

The point is made in a thoughtful book "Cultures of War: Pearl Harbour/Hiroshima/9-11/Iraq" by John Dower of MIT. It throws an interesting light on the selective amnesia in the US regarding the way the intelligence services didn't see 9/11 coming any more than they did Pearl Harbour. The shock and awe that was subsequently unleashed on Japan and later on Afghanistan (and Iraq, which had nothing to do with 9/11) was designed to persuade the enemy with incomprehensible levels of violence that resistance was futile. But was it really necessary to nuke two Japanese cities? And did we actually have to give in to Stalin's pressure and wipe Dresden off the map, with its large population of refugee women and children? Dower calls it a revolution in moral consciousness at the time, i.e. the end justifies the means.

I believe that levels of violence used in war - in so far as they exceed the "civilised" needs of combat - reveal a lot about the fear and outrage felt by the side that is inflicting it. 9/11 was the first serious "bombing" of an American city. Until then, the Americans had done the bombing. The "American innocence outraged" was an opportunity too good to be missed by the born-again Bush administration: it launched a war against "evil".God was now on its side. The rest we know. The fact that it is all ending in tears is a depressing testimony to US foreign policy and the faith-based politics that drive it. Unfortunately this is neither the end nor the beginning.

The war on terror has militarised the national reflexes of the world's most powerful state to the point where its friends are feeling uncomfortable. A 'theology of national security' has a firm grip on the system of government. The Patriot Act has made Americans subject to interference in their private lives that would not be tolerated in most European countries. Where is this war going to stop? What is its objective? When will we know whether it has been won or lost? The answer is of course 'never'. Society has simply changed. Civil rights have been rolled back. And the line between political dissent and unpatriotic behaviour is getting blurred.

But let's get back to history. This is not the first time the US has declared a war on something that can only end in the triumph of good over evil and is therefore unlikely ever to be brought to a close. Richard Nixon is widely credited with starting the War on Drugs in 1971, legitimising military and foreign intervention in the fight against drugs. In actual fact, the US crusade - and this time the term is used in its specifically christian meaning - goes back to the end of the 19th century. It was then that America joined the European powers in the great colonial adventure. The difference was that superior American christian morality - superior also to that of the Europeans that is - had to be seen and felt to assist the US in fulfilling its Manifest Destiny in the Pacific. That was when domestic anti-opium laws were extended to the newly acquired Philippines. This made the Philippines possibly the first experiment in global drug control measures which were to ultimately result in the system we have today.

Then as now, Christian morality, the national interest, and a biblical faith in might being right makes drug issues as difficult to debate in the US as terrorism. In both cases the response has been catastrophic, for the US and for the other countries involved.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

The times they are a changing?

Those countries that have open debates about their drug policies around the world are coming to similar conclusions: that repression has not led to the drug-free world we were hoping for, that it has in fact made things a lot worse. They are also finding that law enforcement can no longer afford to go after drug users and small retailers because budget cuts are affecting the police and the judiciary too. According to a recent report by the UK Drug Policy Commission, more than half the forces in the UK will scale down their "traditional" drug work and look to concentrating on the higher levels of the drug trade and on asset forfeiture (i.e. taking away the BMWs from drug dealers).

Similar developments are happening all over Europe. It is hard to imagine Greek policemen - many of whom are now on 800 Euro monthly salaries - from being either committed to or equipped for intercepting the flow of drugs that comes through from Turkey, Bulgaria and Romania. Most of it is on its way to North Western Europe anyway.

Belgian Police (sitting in the middle of the West European hub for illicit drug distribution to the region) are struggling with internal political problems and an outdated training system. The Dutch Parliament has recently held an expert hearing which advised strongly against some of the present government's flirting with more authoritarian approaches.

Drug policy is not, it turns out, about "solving" the drugs problem, but about reducing the damage that drugs do to people and the crime that prohibition creates. It is about preserving our law-based societies based on the rights of the individual from the growing fashion of making intractable societal problems into "security" issues. The unexpected ally in this effort is the rate at which security budgets are going to suffer in the coming years. It will force governments to follow more effective and evidence-based policies as they will dig deeper into citizens' pockets to service the sovereign debts we now have.

As the indignati or idignados camp in Madrid, London, New York and elsewhere, politicians are also well advised not to go too far in reading the riot act to electorates which are beginning to call into question the relevance of the current political system to their individual lives.