Anslinger’s 100-Year War
I’ve been thinking of winners and loser, peacemakers and warriors, victors and the vanquished. These binary extremes define much of our culture, and much of about the way we think of war and winning. That visceral desire to defeat the enemy is bred in the bone. Crime authors wade knee deep in the fallout that rains down from such a world. Only we know life is far more complicated than such neat divisions appear to offer. Black and white has always given a seductive quality over shades of gray. Comfort comes from believing we can size up an event, situation, person, idea in terms of right and wrong, truth and lies, and hate and love, peace and war. It is, though, a false comfort, and the best fiction—crime fiction or other genres—cause a reader to question such thinking. Come to think of it, the questioning of the sacred, the challenge to belief is one of the main reasons people read a certain category fiction. It doesn’t have a name as far as I know. Let’s call it Deliberative Literature—it has a fiction and non-fiction wing. Such books stand in contrast to escapist stories or confirmation of bias stories—as these are the meat and bones of bestsellers, publishers love them. They sell in the millions of copies. Deliberative Literature has a small audience.
But this wasn’t always the case.
One place to start to understand what makes Deliberative Literature into a bestseller is with Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow. Kahneman’s fifty years of research reveals the scope and nature of our irrational, emotional and biased thought processing. We don’t deliberate so much as react emotionally and process that reaction as logical, true and right. The highly charged emotions are not benign. Our historical, emotionally based behavior records a bloody, messy history from burning witches, mass imprisonment of cannabis users, beheading infidels, killing critics of a faith, selling human beings, and justifying subjugation by use of violence against gays, women, and ethnic minorities.
We need to deliberate on this record and raise questions. The examination of the evidence and facts, and testing both, will make many people uncomfortable as the sacred cows become vulnerable when subject to verification.
Non-fiction books also have the capacity to bore under the lazy thinking, propaganda, bias, prejudice, deceptions and lies that are the foundation for a belief, a government policy, a law, or cultural practice. Like novels they take a jackhammer of experience, scientific studies, evidence of the casualties caused by the operation and management of the institutions charged with implementing a belief system. These books chip away at the unstable, rotten foundation, exposing the truth—it was made largely with sand and very little cement. The foundations of law and democracy should be made of sturdier stuff. It can be overwhelmingly disorientating to have your beliefs system questioned as not only be wrong and counterproductive but dangerous and harmful, causing massive damage to the lives of millions.
Whether fiction or non-fiction, a number of readers search for a book that unshackles the tyranny of the mind locked in a cage of misinformation, false information, and mythic lies. When you find such a book, you want to pass that book along to a friend. And say, “Read this.”
While these thoughts circulated looking for a telephone line to land on, I read Johann Hari’s Chasing the Scream
He looks for contrary evidence suggesting the War Against Drugs has been a good, positive campaign. Hari’s conclusion is America and the rest of the world has begun the long process to change the terms of engagement between drug users and the police. Colorado and Washington were the first two American states to declare a ceasefire in Anslinger’s War as waged by state authorities within their borders. The police on the street won’t shake down users and arrest them for small amounts of cannabis. Hari interviewed officials in Portugal and Uruguay about their experience to eliminate the criminalization of cannabis use despite Anslinger’s War global ban. None of them wish to return to a criminalization response to cannabis use.
What Colorado and Washington States did was decriminalize possession of a small amount of cannabis that can be bought from licensed shops or a small amount can be cultivated at home for personal use. But decriminalization is a start for a permanent state of peace between governments and drug users. That’s legalization of drugs. Hari suggests that this is the direction we are heading but the world is years away from the first stage of decriminalization. Legalization appears to be down an even longer road. How long? Who really knows? Hari reminds us that in 2000 B.C., they were smoking hallucinogenic herbs in the Andes. In our past, in other words, there was no war against drugs. This is a recent invention, like the war against terror. A metaphor expanding war to contain enemies who are largely hedonists or true believers, and to throw them into a battlefield.
One of the best parts of Hari’s Chasing the Scream is his history of an American official named Harry Ansingler who served 31 years as the Commissioner U.S. Treasury Department’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics, started the war against cannabis and pushed that war through the UN to the rest of the world, a war started on Ansingler’s terms—and he was highly successful to use the prohibition model that had been used for alcohol. What had been legal conduct had been made by law criminal conduct. This happened in the 1930s, and Hari takes us through Ansingler baiting the American population with racial hatred (Latinos) who were blamed for the evils of cannabis. Ansingler’s war, like most biblical type wars, was based on a number of assumptions that had no scientific evidence to support them. For example Ansingler apparently had absolutely no problem convincing the Americans that cannabis would turn a normal person into a slavering murderer.
Hari says we laugh at that now, because almost most people sooner or later have been exposed to someone who is stoned, and in experience over decades not a single stoned pot-smoking slavering murderer has been found among the non-slavering killers arrested by the police. But in 1930 people believed it to be true no one thought of examining whether the science proved that hypothesis. We can easily fall into the Dunning-Krueger trap of believing ourselves to be superior in knowledge, ability, and intellect to others, and quite unable to see our own limitations that lead to misery and death. Hubris and subjective, instinctual beliefs have acted as the squadron leader for military adventures against people with different beliefs and values. The War on Terror like the War Against Drugs is an organized death march against people with values and behavior we fear. Like when Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Bush, Jr. convinced Americans to believe that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction as an excuse to invade Iraq.
When both wars started—the war on drugs and the Iraq war—there were shared communities that united not just by religion but by association with racial hatred, prejudice, extreme ideology, and a threat of sufficient emotional wallop that leads to hysteria. Ansingler and Bush both showed how the only talent required is the skill to deepen fear until hysteria sets in and at that tipping point no one is asking for facts, or very few and that are dismissed as traitors, and you get your war. One day people may look at Bush and his officials and laugh, how did people believe such lies? We can say that because we patronize those who lived 80 years ago because they had no way to knowing otherwise. There are always ways to know and there’s always doubt. They were exactly like us. Fear soothes doubts and the rational concern to support action with facts. Instead we only get subjective opinion. Deliberative Literature is a pushback against those who use subjective opinions to stoke fear in order to acquire, maintain and exercise power especially the exclusive right to use violence against others.
Ansingler’s War though may qualify as the longest international war ever waged. More than eighty years, and Hari’s Chasing the Scream goes looking for what all that war as brought to neighborhoods, schools, and cities. What started with racial incitement against the Latinos became the bedrock of a de facto apartheid program in many states and large cities. The war on drugs allowed rise of cartels and warlords much like what had happened during Prohibition against alcohol and what happened with making booze illegal, more people died from overdose (moonshine was a killer during the Prohibition) as the consumer couldn’t be sure of the dosage he bought or quality and impurities in products sold by street criminals.
In the last couple of decades the super rich are regular features online and in the print media. We have discovered what this means—a huge amount of wealth and income has been distributed to sports stars, entertainers, technological moguls, and inheritance. The fastest route to huge money was for the competitive race among the brightest, fitness, athletic prowess who won mass acceptance and the riches and fame that followed as they stood in the winner’s circle. Being born into a rich family means you have a valet to help pull up your bootstraps. You don’t hear much from about the also-rans who soon disappear into the crowd. The poor and uneducated in Columbia, Mexico and Southeast Asia, not to mention Africa, are rarely in the running in the international competition for the super-wealth status. In Prohibition, the criminalization is a sure way for the poor to become super rich or dead or both. Ansingler’s War resulted in hyper-wealth of the drug cartels scattered from Columbia, Mexico, Burma, Thailand, and America. Attach illegality to some product or service that makes people feel good—one that exploits chemical hooks to reduce the edge of fear, depression, boredom, or loneliness—and the results will be predictable. People want to be free of those shadows that befall them. Drugs, booze, cigarette, sex. Not everyone wants to meditate. People want a social way out, which takes them out of their head. Make that thing illegal and you’ve got a black market running the next day. In a month you’ve got an organization and the first murders. Then the real fear starts as those who have found an unlimited supply of workers to sell a highly demanded product for a huge profit. Hari illustrates that never has a war so enriched a criminal class in the name of saving the ordinary citizen, their children and family from taking drugs.
Look back on the casualties of Ansingler’s War and you find corrupted political institutions and more corruption in law enforcement system, prison systems holding millions, the annual death rate directly attributed to the illegal drug trade continues to kill thousands of men, women and children. Hari is good at highlighting the hypocrisy of someone like Harry Ansingler who arranged a long terms supply of heroin to an addicted US senator in return for his return for the prohibition against drugs. You’ll have to read the book to find the name and it is a very good one, too. Also as Ansingler was dying of cancer he passed the rest of his days injected with morphine, transporting him into a state of calm where he might avoid pain and suffering and the knowledge of the pain and suffering he had released onto the world.
In the future, people will build ‘Fear Mountain’, an alternative to the idolatry of Mount Rushmore. An American Fear Mountain would have the massive stone Harry Ansingler’s head next to J. Edgar Hoover. There would be a long list of those who pushed the ‘fear’ button and triggered massacres, genocide, the general flattening of people’s homes, lives, and jobs. Every country would carve faces into their Fear Mountain.
As the wise man says, the future is always ahead of us; we never occupy anything other than the present, trying to understand the scrambled events of the past, and to predict what plausible state of affairs will likely come next. We mostly get the past and the future wrong but that never stops us from seeking answers and believing our answers are mostly right when in reality our instincts have proved an unreliable guide.
We need to adjust our attitude to the meaning of victory when it comes to war. The model isn’t a sports contest. If it were that, the biggest, meanest, most heavily armed and technologically advanced nation would always win. As America foreign wars have shown since the end of WWII you can still lose the 100-meter race even though you are the fastest runner because in reality it was never a 100-meters it was a marathon through an unmarked, alien landscape. At the same time I was finishing Chasing the Scream, I read The Myth of Victory, an essay in Aeon Magazine. Mark Kukis argues that our definition of victory is inherited from our experience of WWII. The Japanese and Germans were completely and utterly defeated and a new economy and political structure was rebuilt after the war ended. That created an expectation about the meaning of war, victory and peace. It runs as the backbone throughout Ansingler’s War, too. Unfortunately the expectation of victory has proved illusory and a dangerously wrong guide to the outcome of military campaigns in the post-WWII world.
Kukris shows evidence of the losing hand dealt to superpowers in waging conflict. When wars were waged between states, in the 19th century they had a 90% chance of decisively defeating their enemy and declaring victory over that state. From 1900 to 1949 that percentage of victory dropped to 65% and from 1950 to 1998 the percentage slipped to 45%. By 1990 the nature of conflict had also changed from wars between nation states to internal conflict within nation states. From 1990 to 2005 there were 147 such internal conflicts and during that period only 14% resulted in a clear winner, another 20% yielded a ceasefire, and 50% continued the fighting and violence. We’ve become accustomed to conflating terrorists with insurgency groups that attack the established order. Until, of course, the established order is painted with the brushstroke of terrorism. No wonder most people remain confused who are the good guys and bad buys. The subjective picture quickly blurs into chaos and because we don’t question our biases and the way they are manipulated by the powerful against us, we fall into the deep hole of cynicism, despair, and doubt. Writers like Johann Hari write books to awakened us from this self-induced slumber.
Deliberative Literature, like Chasing the Scream, Thinking Fast and Slow, articles like the Myth of Victory in places like 3am and Aeon are signs of the awakening. Green shoots in our intellectual garden where Deliberative Literature is growing. While Anslinger’s War started in 1930, it is likely to reach the 100-year milestone in 2030. It is unlikely there will be a victory parade.
The statistics recited by Kuris are counterintuitive to the belief of many that technological advancement has provided a competitive advantage in all warfare. The Americans spent $700 Billion dollars on defence in 2012, they have the most advanced military technology in the world and digital surveillance technology to gather, store and assess information about enemies but victory in wars waged in Iraq and Afghanistan have proved elusive.
Although Kuris doesn’t break out the connection between the 147 conflicts inside nation states and wars and Anslinger’s 100-year War on drugs, but it is a working theory there is a close connection. Mexico alone has suffered 80,000 dead in its war against drugs and no one is suggesting that war will be finished any time soon. John Nash (who recently died) came up with Game Theory, a powerful tool that would suggest that these internal ‘wars’ pursued as a zero sum game have failed. Internal conflicts inside nations reveal a number of possible components that fuel the violence: racial hatred, ideological fanatics, cartels, poverty, inequality, absence of laws, the breakdown of trust and legitimacy in officials and law enforcement institutions. Anslinger’s 100-year War against Drugs has financed internal conflicts, enriched warlords and their war chest for buying weapons and loyal fighters, brought entire communities under the authority of drug warlords. Harry Anslinger got his war. He introduced a worldwide, non-stop war where there will never be victory, and created a funding mechanism to challenge governments with a reign of terror by unleashing a chain reaction of violence, murder and destruction.
The War on Drugs like the War on Terror are permanent wars with no frontline, no technology that will be decisive in victory, with an endless number of new recruits and faceless enemies. If you are a betting person, you’d wager that continuation of such wars against all the odds of winning, is the likely outcome. And every time you roll Harry Anslinger’s loaded dice, they come up showing winning numbers. That’s the job of loaded dice. Do you believe the dice or do you look for the evidence what is actually happening on the ground? We are years away from climbing Fear Mountain. Meanwhile, many across the world will continue to follow their local fear-mongering Harry Anslinger into another war that will redeem them against the horror of an insecure, unsafe life etched with fear.