"We have met the enemy and he is us."
- comic strip character, Pogo (1971)
A week ago last Sunday (December 14), the Wheeling News-Register devoted a great deal of space in its Sunday edition to the heroin problem in the Ohio Valley. Four wide-ranging articles examined local heroin use from the perspective of law enforcement officials, counselors, and former users. Taken together as a whole, I think the articles reflect a shift in attitudes toward heroin addiction by the local "newspapers" which mirrors the changing perspective toward those users by the larger culture. (Unless your television viewing excludes news and information-oriented programming, I’m sure you’ve seen a number of sympathetic segments on the "heroin epidemic" this past year.) Like those television reports, notably absent from the News-Register articles are calls for prison time or, at the least, a condemnation of the user – both of which have been an essential part of both the paper’s and the culture’s attitude toward the user since at least the 1970s. In its place, are a compassion for the user’s plight and a call for helpful programs. I’m very glad that we’re no longer blaming and punishing the victim but I can’t help but wonder "what has changed?"
If the reporting is accurate, I think what has changed is who is using the drug. Since at least the early 1970s, heroin use has been seen as an inner-city (a nice euphemism for "African-American") problem. Back then, we never had a chance to develop any real understanding of the problem - our popular culture, especially the movies and TV programs that followed The French Connection (1971), provided us with scary images of drug users and dealers and connected them to life in the ghettos of our large cities. More importantly, we had a president, Richard Nixon, who realized that there was much to gain politically with middle-class, white Americans by scaring them and then declaring (also in 1971) a "war on drugs." Since then, we’ve added a few more drugs (cocaine and crack cocaine, meth, and pain pills) and added new groups to demonize (Appalachians with our "hillbilly heroin" and meth). And since 1971, we’ve wasted billions of dollars waging a "war on drugs" only to finally find that the enemy, as Pogo said, is us.
I went online to see who was writing about this shift and, to my surprise, I didn’t find very much. Amid a scattering of articles that dealt with the topic was this excellent column by Stephen Lerner and Nelini Stamp from last May in the Washington Post:
Clearly, new attention to heroin use in white, affluent areas is changing the perceptions and politics of drug addiction. No longer are the addicts "desperate and hardened." Apparently, heroin use isn’t the result of bad parenting, the rise of single-parent families or something sick or deviant in white culture. It isn’t an incurable plague that is impossible to treat except with jail time. Drug addicts no longer are predatory monsters.
In short, the root problem is not the degeneracy of a group of Americans.
No, it’s not and it never has been. It was, and still is, a much more complex problem that includes other things like jobs and a steady income, health care, housing, and maybe, most importantly, a hope for a better future. On some social issues like gay marriage and legalization of marijuana our culture gets more liberal by the day. But on the important economic issues, we are getting more and more conservative. A number of our leaders (with our local papers’ support) seem intent on destroying what is left of the unions and the middle class, rolling back health care and the other safety nets, and widening the gap between rich and poor. It seems to me that this Randian future will only increase drug use, especially among young people who need to see a future beyond working a lifetime in McJobs.
Myer on the militarization of the police
I knew it was only a matter of time before our local columnist weighed in on police militarization. Yes, Michael Myer is in favor of it. Sunday's headline says it all: "Bad Guys’ Weapons Better, Too."
He starts with an anecdote: back in the 1960s, the police in the small town in which he grew up had a military-grade submachine gun and as far as he knew, "it was never fired in anger." (I guess we should all generalize from Mike’s experience that police never fire in anger. Nor do they ever overreact or act on their prejudices.) We need not worry.
He then gives some reasons for the militarization:
One is that after Sept. 11, 2001, federal officials decided the public would feel much more secure if every police and sheriff's department in the country had tons of military equipment. Not much use for an armored personnel carrier in a rural area? Hey, it's free. Take it. It'll be handy for parades.
Do you really feel more secure knowing your police department has a grenade launcher or armored personnel carrier? And I never thought of it – they could be used in parades kind of like the old Soviet Union’s May Day parades which said to the world and maybe more importantly, it’s own people – hey, don’t even think about messing with us.
His second reason:
Gangs and individual drug pushers are far better armed than they were, say, 20 years ago. Do you blame a cop who, told he's about to go through the front door of a drug pusher's lair, for asking where he picks up his body armor and assault rifle?
No, I don’t blame the cop but shouldn’t we as citizens worry about giving the police way too much firepower for the circumstances? Does this cop need a grenade launcher? An armored vehicle? A mine resistant armor protected (MRAP) vehicle? I’m sorry, justifying body armor and maybe an assault weapon does not justify all of them. And as a number of sources have pointed out, the weaponry was provided by the Defense Department without any local police training. The Washington Post, for example, explains MRAP vehicles:
For the past few years, the Pentagon has been giving these vehicles to police departments across the country. The unwieldy behemoths have little real application in domestic police work. They’re designed for use on a battlefield. (The Pentagon offers no training to police departments when it gives the vehicles away. And they’ve been known to tip over.)
The Pentagon does not provide training for their use which means that local police can pretty much deploy them as they wish. As I’ve argued previously, the proliferation of this weaponry makes the escalation of their use inevitable. Ferguson, or something like it, was bound to happen. To his credit Myer, without mentioning Ferguson, does worry a bit about overuse by SWAT teams.
There is a legitimate concern about overuse of SWAT teams in sometimes questionable situations.
But he dismisses it for Wheeling:
It happens less often in small towns and rural counties like ours simply because police chiefs and sheriffs are closer to the people they protect and serve - and much less likely to risk harming innocent people.
It’s a good thing that Wheeling is a small town. By the way, the 2012 population of Wheeling, WV was around 28,000 and for Ferguson, MO it was 21,000.
----- ----- ----- ----- -----
*** A highly recommended video ***
Click here to see a just-released, must-see video on police militarization from Brave New Films. In just under three minutes it does an excellent job of explaining how this militarization has happened.
"How- how does the Universe end?" said Billy.
"We blow it up, experimenting with new fuels for our flying saucers. A Tralfamadorian test pilot presses a starter button, and the whole Universe disappears." So it goes.
"If you know this," said Billy, "isn't there some way you can prevent it? Can't you keep the pilot from pressing the button?"
"He has always pressed it, and he always will. We always let him and we always will let him. The moment is structured that way."
--- From Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five
I was thinking about Vonnegut’s novel, arguably his best, in the last few days as I was traveling. What brought the novel to mind was my previous post on the militarizing of our local police. The more I thought about this increased militarization the more disturbing I found its ramifications.
Many years ago I read a couple of works by Jacques Ellul. A man of varied interests, Ellul wrote primarily about philosophy, religion and sociology. He often tied them together as he examined technology’s effects upon the world we live in. Among many important ideas, Ellul argued that once a technology is created, we will, with little or no debate as to the consequences of its use, find a way to use it. ("The moment is structured that way.") Put another way - if we can do it, we will do it - once created, its use becomes inevitable. As an example, Ellul argued that once the United States started to work on the atomic bomb, we were, despite doubts raised by some of its creators, bound to use it. More recently, it seems to me, the creation of drone technology meant that we would find a time and a place to use them. (Rationalizations are always easier after the fact. Of course, we’re always doing it to "save lives.") The technological imperative, as it is sometimes called, has little room for a discussion of ethics before its use and once used, it’s too late - as they say, the genie is out of the bottle.
In the fifties and sixties we created military technology for the possibility of jungle warfare and then (surprise, surprise) found a place to try it out – Vietnam. In the 21st century, we’ve created all sorts of technology to fight a "war on terror." (An Orwellian phrase that means whatever our government wants it to mean.) And now some of that technology has been passed on to local law enforcement where it’s being used against the local citizenry who were never given a chance to decide on whether it should be used by the local police in the first place. For example, as noted in the previous post - Ohio County received twenty-eight 5.56-mm and 7.62-mm assault rifles. Here’s a picture of the 7.62 mm:
And here’s the 5.56 mm:
Ohio County now has twenty-eight of these guns! What could possibly be a reason for their use in the Wheeling area? (ISIS rebels bunkered along the banks of the Ohio River? Roving bands of senior citizens terrorizing the locals?) Belmont County now has 53 assault rifles and an armored vehicle and just last week the Ohio State University received a mine-resistant ambush protected (MRAP) vehicle.
The 19-ton armored truck . . . is built to withstand "ballistic arms fire, mine fields, IED's, and Nuclear, Biological and Chemical environments," according to its product description .
Once we have the weapons, we will find an excuse to use them. Ferguson, Missouri was the first but if Ellul and Vonegut are right, it’s just a matter of time until we see more examples of what happens when militarized police assert themselves in our cities, towns and universities. Maybe it’s time for citizens to start asking questions of their elected officials. As the U.S. News and World Report argues:
Before another small town's police force gets a $700,000 gift from the Defense Department that it can't maintain or manage, it behooves us to press pause on the Pentagon's 1033 program and revisit the merits of a militarized America. We must do it now, before Kankakee looks like Kabul or Boise looks like Baghdad.
Increased militarization and citizen apathy – a potentially deadly combination for a democracy. In the words of Kurt Vonnegut – "so it goes."