Not to Praise, But to Bury

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As another elder statesman dies and the nation is caught in the grip of another bout of panegyrics, it’s worth stepping back to concentrate on the individual lives that they touched during their time in the halls of power. For George Herbert Walker Bush, specifically, that means considering also the plight of Keith Jackson.

In 1989, Jackson was a high school senior in Anacostia, southeast DC, living in one of the worst zip codes in the country. Like many of his peers, Jackson was a low-level drug dealer, one of the smallest cogs in a larger machine, like the Baltimore towers in The Wire. Crucially, he had reached his 18th birthday when the federal government started setting him up for a presidential publicity stunt.

See, George Bush, seemingly desperate to prove he was man enough to live up to his successor, wanted a set piece to kick off his own extension of Reagan’s War on Drugs. So his staff came up with the idea of busting someone for selling crack cocaine—still the drug warrior’s enemy of choice—in the shadow of the White House.

Bush demanded more cops to arrest drug dealers, more prosecutors to seek harsher penalties for them, and more prisons to hold all the extra convicts.

DEA agents offered up Jackson as a patsy. He’d been on their radar for months—so if selling drugs in and of itself was really such a big deal, they could have grabbed him at any point (and then he’d be replaced by another young slinger with no other prospects, and then another, ad infinitum). No, he was only worth it if he could be sacrificed for a higher purpose, like making a weedy, “wimpy” Massachusetts desk-occupier look like a tough guy. That purpose in hand, the undercover DEA agent on Jackson’s case asked him to meet at Lafayette Park, promising an extra premium to lure Jackson to Northwest DC, where black residents of the city almost never went. (As a measure of how stratified and segregated DC society was at the time — not to mention how complete the failure of the educational system — when the undercover DEA agent asked Jackson to meet him in the park across from the White House, Jackson didn’t know where that was until piecing together that it was “where Reagan lives,” and he was hesitant to make the trip because one thing he did know is how much greater the police presence would be in Official DC.)

The purchase took place on September 1, and on September 5 Bush was holding up a plastic baggie of crack cocaine during a White House address, noting that it had been “seized” (not bought) just across the street. He demanded more cops to arrest drug dealers, more prosecutors to seek harsher penalties for them, and more prisons to hold all the extra convicts. He got all of those things, often in connection with mandatory minimum laws that eliminated judicial discretion in sentencing (and which perpetuated a nonsensical divide in sentencing between powdered and crack cocaine, the burden of which fell almost entirely on the black community).

If George Bush ever cared about those whose lives didn’t intersect with his, he certainly never showed it.

Keith Jackson was one of those who fell prey to a mandatory minimum. The DEA arrested him, not at the sale for whatever reason, but immediately after Bush’s speech. After his first two trials ended in hung juries, a third trial saw him convicted and sentenced to a legally-mandated decade in prison without parole. The judge in the case, uncomfortable with the mode of Jackson’s entrapment, urged him to ask the president for a commutation. But Bush had almost immediately washed his hands of the matter: facing criticism from a variety of sources including even those had a stake in the Drug War’s continuance (like the head of the city’s police union), Bush said, “I cannot feel sorry for [Jackson]. I’m sorry, they ought not to be peddling these insidious drugs that ruin the children of this country.” And so, for the crime of selling 2.4 grams of crack cocaine to another consenting adult in a place where there had been no recorded drug busts in the past, Keith Jackson served almost eight years in prison.

What happened to him after that point is not known. One doubts that Bush ever dwelt on Jackson or any other of the thousands affected by yet another surge in the War on Drugs—young men and occasionally women losing their futures to ruthless sentencing guidelines and the economic incentives of incarceration, or often just their lives to police enforcement or to the criminal turf wars that invariably follow the artificial limiting of a highly in-demand substance. Add in the families and communities that depended on this suddenly absent and incarcerated generation, and it’s hundreds of thousands if not millions.

But if Bush ever cared about those whose lives didn’t intersect with his, he certainly never showed it, as the Iraqi people had ample opportunity to learn. In the rush to war with one-time American ally (indeed, almost appointee) Saddam Hussein over the invasion of Kuwait, Bush infamously allowed himself to be swayed by the testimony of a supposed refugee of the conflict, known only as Nayirah, who spoke of Iraqi soldiers raiding Kuwaiti hospitals, pulling prematurely born infants out of incubators and tossing them aside to die. By the time it was discovered that Nayirah was actually the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to the U.S., and the entire thing had been organized by an American PR firm in the employ of the Kuwaiti government, the war was already over — though its repercussions will persist long after our lifetimes.

Between his year directing the CIA and his time as vice president, he was involved in some of the most notorious operations run through the US government: Operation Condor, the School of the Americas, the Iran-Contra affair.

An estimated 100,000 Iraqi soldiers and an unknown number of civilians were killed in that first Gulf War, with the particular highlight of the Highway of Death, in which American forces blockaded and massacred retreating Iraqi forces, as well as any civilians unfortunate enough to be within cluster bomb range. Content with this level of slaughter, Bush called off hostilities the next day—a point in his favor, perhaps, when compared to those overseeing the unceasing carnage of today’s forever wars. But Bush hardly had clean hands before this, having already orchestrated an illegal invasion of Panama. Between his year directing the CIA and his time as vice president, he was involved in some of the most notorious operations run through the US government: Operation Condor, the School of the Americas, the Iran-Contra affair; it will be decades though, if ever, before we learn just how deeply he was implicated.

There’s much else to dislike about the elder Bush and the legacy he is leaving behind, in particular his enablement of many awful people. You can draw a direct line from his campaign manager Lee Atwater and his infamous Willie Horton ad to the race-baiting scare tactics used by Donald Trump. A look at Bush’s administrative appointees reveals many of the big names—Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, Donald Rumsfeld — who would go on to botch the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, all the while pushing for ever more wars on ever more fronts. (Which is not even to mention his son who, in signing off on Gulf War Redux, committed what is thus far the greatest geopolitical blunder of the century.) You could talk also about his surrender to the tax-and-spenders on budget issues, or to the Religious Right about gay rights. You could also give him credit where it’s due: for handling the end of the Cold War with flexibility and grace, for committing himself to promoting volunteerism and community service, for not following in the footsteps of his father, Prescott Bush, and signing on to any half-baked fascist coups against the US government.

All this, at least the good stuff, or the bad stuff that various media figures want to recast as good, will be gone over ad infinitum. But when you see the footage of his funerals, when you take in the official outpouring of grief that is increasingly mandatory on such occasions, when above all you hear anyone talking about how George H.W. Bush advocated for a “kinder, gentler conservatism,” spare a thought for Keith Jackson. It’s more than Bush ever did.



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The Cruelty of the Self-Righteous

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I am generally favorable to President Trump, and I can give you reasons for that. But I am not favorable, at all, to his role in the current “you aren’t doing enough about this” war between political factions about the so-called opioid crisis. Trump has upped the ante by calling for the death penalty for illicit peddling of opioids. The only way you can call and raise him on that is by recommending the death penalty for users — something that, unfortunately, may already be entailed by the agitated proposals now issuing from Trump and other officials.

Look. Every 20 years there’s another drug “crisis.” This has been going on for more than a century. But seldom has it gone on about a more useful family of drugs than opioids. These drugs reduce severe and chronic pain, and pain is a good thing to reduce. Often it is something that needs to be reduced in order to prevent a suicide; very often it is something that needs to be reduced in order to give sick people a real life.

To arbitrarily limit the number of prescriptions for useful drugs is to arbitrarily increase the amount of human pain. That’s pretty much the definition of cruelty.

There is no doubt that these drugs can be falsely prescribed, over-prescribed, and abused. There is no doubt that they can cause addiction and death. I hope I am not offending you by saying that all of this is a familiar part of life on this planet. The best, and in fact the only, way of meeting this “crisis” is to exercise responsibility for your own medications. It is not to tell your neighbor to take those little pains to the nearest Zen master, or man up and bear them.

To raise the price of “illicit” drugs by raising the penalty for peddling them merely increases profits for the vast majority of dealers who always escape such penalties. To arbitrarily limit the number of prescriptions for useful drugs, which is what is now being proposed on all sides, is to arbitrarily increase the amount of human pain. That’s pretty much the definition of cruelty.

So I say, Damn your cruelty, Mr. President. And damn the cruelty of all the self-satisfied people who agree with you only about this, of all things.




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Riddles, Wrapped in Mysteries

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How in the world did this happen?

That’s a question I often ask myself when I read the news. When I ask it, I’m seldom reacting to the events reported. One can easily imagine what makes drunk drivers crash into trees, or political parties disgrace themselves before their constituents. But how in the world did the report end up that way?

On July 11, an inmate in the Berrien County, Michigan jail snatched a gun from an officer and began shooting people. Reporting on this event as it developed, the Washington Post went for some local color:

Video footage posted online that appeared to be from outside the courthouse in southwestern Michigan showed a litany of police vehicles with their lights flashing parked outside the building. . . .

The courthouse is located about 50 miles west of Kalamazoo, where an Uber driver killed six people in a shooting spree earlier this year.

It isn’t hard to see what went wrong with that first sentence. Somebody wanted to jazz it up, and he or she remembered that there was, somewhere in the dictionary, perhaps under the letter “l,” the word litany. Why not use that word? The reason not to use it was merely that it doesn’t mean a line of vehicles, or a line of any kind of objects. It means a series of things one says in church. Its use was, therefore, ludicrous in the extreme.

Oh well, bad guess. A couple of hours later, the sentence was revised to read: “Video footage posted online that appeared to be from outside the courthouse in southwestern Michigan showed numerous police vehicles, their lights flashing. . . .” In some dark cavern of the Washpo building, a graybeard had been found who actually knew what is the meaning of litany.

Did the Washington Post mean to suggest that Uber drivers from Kalamazoo infest the grounds of the Berrien County courthouse, waiting a chance at murder and mayhem?

But what about the second sentence? It was changed, too; the word located was excised: “The courthouse is about 50 miles west of Kalamazoo, where an Uber driver killed six people in a shooting spree earlier this year.” Well, that’s fussy, isn’t it? And it was a fussiness triumphant over meaning. No one addressed the issue of the strange, unfinished quality of the sentence as a whole.

What does it mean to say that the courthouse where an inmate tried to escape is 50 miles west of a town where an Uber driver started killing people at random because, according to him, his app told him to do it? What are we supposed to make of this peculiar lesson in geography? Did the Washington Post mean to hint that there was some hidden connection between events that happened 50 miles, 264,000 feet, away? Did it mean to suggest that Uber drivers from Kalamazoo infest the grounds of the Berrien County courthouse, waiting a chance at murder and mayhem? Or that the Berrien County inmate was an Uber driver in disguise? Or that southwestern Michigan is not, as it appears to be, a lovely champaign country of farms and woodlands — that it is instead a focus of violence in our modern world? Or are we simply to assume that the august editors of America’s second-ranking “intellectual” paper are unable to spot and remove a silly factoid extracted from Google Maps?

We will never know. On this point we must remain as ignorant as MSNBC alleged itself to be when it ran this headline during the terrorist episode in Dhaka on July 1:

Was the Bangla Desh attack premeditated?

Was it? Let’s see. . . . On the evening of July 1, five terrorists attacked a café frequented by foreigners, took hostages, and executed people who were unable to recite passages from the Quran. Twenty-nine people died. Might this event have been premeditated? Gosh, how could MSNBC, or anyone else, for that matter, possibly divine the answer to a question like that? You have to see how these things play out, wait for the investigation, call in the experts. Even then, you may never reach the definitive explanation. When you hear that a bunch of people have invaded a café and taken hostages, you shouldn’t rush to judgment about the way it happened. Even long afterward, you may still be asking, with Mrs. Clinton, "Was it because of a protest or was it because of guys out for a walk one night and decided they’d go kill some foreigners? What difference — at this point, what difference does it make?"

But you can bet that if a bunch of Baptists, en route to some fundamentalist conclave, were stopped for speeding with an unlicensed gun in their trunk, not a minute would pass before MSNBC and all the rest of them would be talking about nothing except the vast rightwing conspiracy.

Of course, there are many things that American journalists neither know nor care about, even while feeling obliged to “report” them. One is the sickening number of murders, mainly of young black and Hispanic people, in America’s inner cities (i.e., cities that are completely dominated by Democrats). The statistics are sometimes given, the deaths are pronounced unfortunate, but no explanations are provided. May these terrible events have something to do with the War on Drugs and the War on Poverty, which were succeeded by a civil war within the young male populations most affected by them? Just a thought, which is one more thought than the Washington Post and the New York Times are willing to come out with. I don’t believe that calling these murders “gun deaths” qualifies as an explanatory thought. It qualifies only as willful ignorance.

This type of ignorance actually deepens when we turn to news reports on foreign people. I recently read a report on the tribal wars in South Sudan, a story that waited until paragraph 19 to indicate that the violence was occurring between members of different tribes. Readers were left to guess that tribal rivalry might conceivably be the cause of the terror that had been described in lavish detail by the first 18 paragraphs. No interest was expressed in exploring the idea.

May these terrible events have something to do with the War on Drugs and the War on Poverty, which were succeeded by a civil war within the young male populations most affected by them?

All right, you say, reporting on Africa has never been very interested, except when white people have been concerned. That’s a fact, although it’s not a fact to be proud of. But even big reports on big events in Europe are full of real or constructed ignorance.

A funny example was Christiane Amanpour’s alleged reporting on the Brexit vote for CNN. How this woman with the empty head and the foghorn voice ever got a job, much less managed to hold it for generations, is beyond me. But as the Brexit returns came in, she gave the most amusing of her many unconsciously amusing performances. Clearly shocked by results she did not desire and had not imagined, she mourned, she spluttered, she pontificated, she asked the hapless people she “interviewed” how it was possible that the voters should have ignored “all the experts”? Well, as demonstrated by the results of her “interviews,” if you don’t already know a thing like that, no one can explain it to you. And since she couldn’t understand the obvious answers to her endlessly repeated “experts” question, it would clearly have been hopeless for anyone to bring up the next point, which was why people like her should be regarded as experts in the first place, if they can’t conceive of anyone disagreeing with them.

A less amusing example of ignorance came from the Washington Post (which, I see, has emerged as the chief villain of this month’s column). The Post ran a long “report” on the sexual attacks perpetrated by men from Islamic countries, many or most of them “refugees,” during the 2015–16 New Year’s festivities in Germany. The events themselves were scandalous; even more scandalous was the subsequent cover-up by police and political authorities. At length, the terrible information came to light: hundreds of women had been attacked. And now, a still more terrible thing has been revealed: more than 1,200 women were attacked, by more than 2,000 men.

Even big reports on big events in Europe are full of real or constructed ignorance.

Somewhere, a sufficient explanation must exist for the fact that liberal media and public figures do everything they can to deflect blame from people (i.e., radical Muslims) who violently oppose the liberals’ most cherished values, people who persecute gays, victimize women, and systematically deny the rights of everyone who does not profess their religion. The fact is notorious, and since I do not have an adequate explanation myself, I will merely state that fact and comment on one of its worst effects, which is to obscure the distinction between barbarian fanatics, who commit horrible crimes, and modern, progressive, enlightened Muslims, who would not dream of doing so. To treat the members of a white supremacist church with the same sweet condescension that one extends to the nice ladies in the altar guild at St. Anne’s would be to demoralize the latter while inciting the former. This is obvious. It is something that everyone knows, or ought to know.

But here is the intellectual payoff (if you want to call it that) of the Washington Post’s report on the German liberals’ attempted cover-up of the events of New Year’s Eve:

The delay in communicating the extent of the New Year's Eve crimes [“delay in communicating” = “cover-up,” a word that appears nowhere in the report] is most likely due to a balancing act between the determination of the Cologne police force to not fuel tensions against refugees and the public expectation to fully reveal what happened that night.

That wad of words, so complicated, so self-conscious, so faux-judicious, virtually cries out, “How clever I am!” But again: how did it happen? Did anyone at the Post actually read that sentence? I mean, did anyone spend the 30 seconds necessary to determine whether it made sense? Not whether it was true, or even whether it employed good grammar — which it doesn’t — but simply whether it made any sense. The answer appears to be No.

What does the sentence say? It says that there were two things being balanced. One was the cops’ politically motivated determination (not just desire, but determination) to cover something up. The other was the public’s desire to know. And the result was that the cops covered something up. Where’s the balance in that? There isn’t any; the whole business about a “balancing act” is meaningless.

I hope I am right in suggesting that nobody read that sentence to see whether it had any meaning. The alternative — that somebody read it and thought it was right in every way and looked forward to readers’ being influenced by it — is almost too shocking to consider.




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Drugs Are the Least of the Problem

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The word “sicario” means “hit man” in Spanish, or more literally “dagger man.” Its use dates back to the Jewish Zealots who carried small daggers in their cloaks and assassinated Roman guards in the streets. A note at the beginning of the film Sicario informs us that these Zealots were “killers of those who invaded their homeland.” That would make them heroes with blood on their hands. The film presents two homelands, the United States and Mexico, that are invaded in different ways, and two sets of sicarios caught up in defending two ways of life that have been forever changed by the drug trade.

Drugs are the least of the problem in this film, which focuses instead on the collateral damage of the drug war. As the film opens, an FBI SWAT team led by agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is invading a home in Chandler, Arizona, a quiet middle-class suburb of Phoenix 200 miles north of the border with Mexico. I have friends who live comfortably there. Kate’s mission is not a drug bust but a hostage rescue, and her team drives straight through the wall of the house with their Humvee in their surprise attack. They are too late for anything but cleanup duty, however, and the grisly scene they find causes many of them to vomit. This is the next step in the drug war — not just the physical effects of drug addiction, or the big-money corruption that goes with the lucrative trade, but the personal terror, torture, and murder that are used to maintain strict control. And it’s coming to middle America, the movie warns.

Naked mutilated bodies hang from overpasses. Families attending their children’s soccer matches barely flinch at the barrage of gunshots in the distance. A shootout in the middle of a crowded road is largely ignored.

“Pretty soon all of your crime scenes will be booby-trapped with explosives, and then how will you protect your team?” Kate’s superior (Victor Garber) warns her as he tries to recruit her for a riskier mission that involves tracing the violence to its source, a kingpin named Fausto (Julio Cedillo), by interrogating a lower-level henchman, Guilllermo (Edgar Arreola), in custody in Juarez, Mexico. Kate agrees to join the mission to extricate Guillermo from Juarez, although she doesn’t understand her role in the plot (and frankly, neither do we).

As the scene changes to Juarez, we see the ravages of the drug war in full force. Naked mutilated bodies hang from overpasses. Families attending their children’s soccer matches barely flinch at the barrage of gunshots in the distance. A shootout in the middle of a crowded road is largely ignored by occupants in the surrounding cars. A father eats breakfast with his son and then goes off to his job as a policeman and drug mule. This is not the Juarez I knew 45 years ago, when my mother had no qualms about driving across the border with her two teenaged daughters to shop for cactus lace and sombreros. And I hope it is not a precursor of the Chandler my friends may soon know if the war on drugs continues its relentless invasion.

Leading the hunt for Fausto is a mysterious Colombian named Alejandro (Benecio del Toro). Kate eyes him warily while they travel to Juarez and then to Nogales, and tension builds in the silence. Then, as they enter Juarez, the music begins — a downward chromatic slide in a minor key that starts softly and builds to a pulsing, crashing arpeggio of despair as they race through the city, jolting full throttle over speed bumps, surrounded by armed escorts with machine guns at the ready. The tension ebbs and flows throughout the rest of the film, accompanied by the riveting soundtrack, but it never disappears.

This is not the Juarez I knew 45 years ago, when my mother had no qualms about driving across the border with her two teenaged daughters.

This is not the kind of film you watch for entertainment value. It is appalling in its matter-of-fact portrayal of brutality. But it is an important story, led by the tour de force acting skills of Del Toro and Blunt. We’ve come to expect Del Toro’s steely-eyed reserve, his undertone of ruthlessness, and his skill at conveying character without saying a word. Blunt usually portrays her characters with kickass strength, even when they aren’t actually kicking ass. One would expect an FBI agent who has advanced to the role of team leader would have that same steely-eyed strength. But Blunt plays this character with an unexpected vulnerability and wariness. Her waif-thin slenderness contributes to the fragility of her character’s emotional state. She is a virtually powerless sicario, trying to protect her homeland from the invaders.


Editor's Note: Review of "Sicario," directed by Denis Villeneuve. Lionsgate, 2015, 121 minutes.



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Hoffman Dies, War on Drugs Revives

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On February 2, Philip Seymour Hoffman, a movie actor, died with a needle in his arm in his home in New York City. To me, his death from a heroin overdose was regrettable, and regrettable in the same way in which deaths from the effects of overeating and overdrinking are regrettable. I felt no extra stirring of dramatic emotion.

In this, obviously, I am very unlike my fellow Americans. To the celebrities who flocked to his funeral, and the larger mobs who flocked to the websites and “news” sources mourning his death, his way of leaving this world appears to have ennobled him, given him, somehow, the rank of tragic hero. People who had never heard of him, or (like me) had heard of him and even liked his performances on screen but never considered his name as something to be remembered, suddenly found that their worlds were poorer because of Hoffman’s drug-related death. Policemen, working with a dedication rarely seen in cases of actual mayhem and murder, identified and arrested four people whom they suspected of possible responsibility for his death.

Responsibility? This is like arresting the employees of a fast-food restaurant because an obese patron died from the effects of his last Big Mac. Did anyone say “double standard”? Did anyone say “human sacrifice”? No. You heard it here first.

Granted, the Demonic Four may not be deacons of the church and pillars of the community. They may be disgusting members of the criminal class. (Or they may be wholly innocent.) But who created that criminal class? Who put the profit in illicit drugs? Who put “illicit” in drugs, and keeps it there?

Legalize drugs, all drugs. It’s none of your business, anyway, what other people ingest, but at least by legalizing drugs you can take the real crime out of so-called crime.

The answer is: the same kind of people who are beating their breasts over Hoffman’s death. It is these people — and they appear to be the majority of Americans, made snazzier by the presence among them of loquacious celebrities and soi-disant humanitarians — who create the illicit profit, and the correspondingly illicit drama, of heroin, cocaine, and all the other “hard” illegal drugs. They profess themselves to be so concerned about the fate of, say, wealthy actors that in retribution they are willing to spread the plague of crime, gangs, violence, and the corruption of the profit-seeking young across the continent, despoiling whole cities in a mad attempt to realize their dream of a Drug-Free America.

For a century, America has been waging war against drugs. According to CNN, heroin is now selling at $10 a unit on the streets of Philadelphia. If this, unlike other CNN reports, is actually true, then I say good, because the lower the price, the lower the real crime rate. Real crimes are crimes of fraud and violence, the kind of crimes that you create when you practice prohibition.

The solution is obvious: legalize drugs, all drugs. It’s none of your business, anyway, what other people ingest, but at least by legalizing drugs you can take the real crime out of so-called crime. Some people who don’t use drugs will then be able to use them. Maybe they’ll use them only on weekends. Maybe they’ll become addicted (like Philip Seymour Hoffman, who got that way despite the fact that hard drugs are illegal). Libertarians should not pretend that these bad effects won’t happen. But call me heartless — this is a small price to pay for the enormous heartlessness of the War on Drugs.

And the really horrible thing is that I’m not saying anything new. Everybody knows these facts. Everybody is capable of making these deductions. If you somehow manage to avoid making them, don’t tell me how much you mourn the death of people like Philip Seymour Hoffman. You have a lot more to regret than that.




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