AN AMERICAN VIEW

Waging war without weapons

After promising no new taxes, Bush now finds himself trying to mount a full-scale assault on drugs without sufficient cash

FRED BRUNING October 9 1989
AN AMERICAN VIEW

Waging war without weapons

After promising no new taxes, Bush now finds himself trying to mount a full-scale assault on drugs without sufficient cash

FRED BRUNING October 9 1989

Waging war without weapons

AN AMERICAN VIEW

FRED BRUNING

A short time ago, William Bennett, the U.S. drug policy chief, visited a park in Houston that had been wrested from crack dealers through the combined efforts of local residents and the police department. Bennett applauded the success and later told an audience that in order to prevail, Americans would have to assert just this sort of “moral authority”—that they would have to make it clear to the drug lords and street pushers and two-bit hustlers that, as a nation, we’ve taken enough and don’t intend to take any more.

Unfortunately, Houston police reported that while the park cited by Bennett indeed was secure, dealers who once haunted the place hardly were out of business. The “bad guys,” as Bennett calls them, merely moved their operation a few blocks and, later that evening, could be seen offering their wares to those driving through the neighborhood’s shadowy streets. Asked what police needed to deal with such a vexing set of circumstances, one officer assigned to a narcotics task force said, “Atomic weapons and first-strike capability.”

While moral authority is a fine thing to have on your side, and while a safe park is far better than one overtaken by crack pedlars, the American drug dilemma is not likely to be undone by righteous talk or Sidewinder missiles. There is real question, in fact, as to whether we can redeem ourselves by any direct or convenient method. We are an impatient tribe, we Americans, and like to think we can prevail by mere force of will. But in the case of drug abuse we are finding slowly and painfully, and with some embarrassment, that we may have more than met our match.

Bennett himself says that it could take 20 years to regain control of the situation, but the policy director and his boss, President George Bush, insist we must begin—and, they say, the sooner the better. Accordingly, the administration offers us an $8.9-billion anti-drug initia-

Fred Bruning is a writer with Newsday in New York.

After promising no new taxes, Bush now finds himself trying to mount a full-scale assault on drugs without sufficient cash

tive, written by Bennett and his staff, that addresses the familiar issues of interdiction, enforcement, prevention and treatment, and relies heavily on the evangelical notion that the forces of good will retake the nation, in Bush’s words, “neighborhood by neighborhood, block by block, child by child.”

Closer inspection of the drug-war proposal suggests that White House budget experts may be experiencing premature battle fatigue. The plan adds only $2.5 billion to the $6.5 billion in anti-drug monies spent this fiscal year, and most of the new funding appears headed for federal prisons that should have been built in any case. As a candidate, Bush promised no new taxes and now finds himself trying to mount a full-scale assault on a deadly foe without sufficient cash. Bush was resolute when delivering his acceptance speech at the Republican convention last year, but the President’s bully tone may seem rather less thrilling when viewed in the context of a national drug disaster. Read my lips? Tell that to a family whose kid has overdosed or the wife of a cop blown away by crack pushers.

A number of Democrats pressed for more anti-drug funds and, after some stalling, the White House agreed to another $1 billion—

impressive, unless the figure is compared to the price of, say, a stealth bomber or the cost of the next space shuttle mission. Meanwhile, newspapers run story after story attesting to the remarkable fact that in late-century America, drugs have surged into every comer of the nation—a phenomenon, like the shocking growth of the nation’s homeless population, that makes it increasingly difficult to croon about those alabaster cities undimmed by human tears.

Demand, of course, is the central issue. Drugs are a hot consumer item in the hottest of consumer countries. If Americans were not so keen on cocaine, the Medellin cartel in Colombia would have to make its millions on stock swindles, or real estate boondoggles, or extortion plots, or on any of the time-tested schemes favored by mobsters around the world. Yes, the Colombian drug barons are a bellicose lot. Yes, they devour lives and, yes, the United States is correct in pressing Bogotá’s leaders to smash the Medellin threat. But, as Colombians are apt to point out, gringos may be fooling themselves if they think the problem lies in the coca fields of South America. Colombia only produces the stuff. The incentive comes from elsewhere— from that wealthy, powerful, self-indulgent land far to the north.

How did we get to such a point? In this 20thanniversary year of Woodstock, many have decided that the peace freaks who frolicked in Max Yasgur’s muddy meadow started it all— the hippies and their hallucinogenic music. Others suggest that cocaine has become too much of a bargain to pass up. It was cheaper to take a hit of crack than go to the movies, you see, so, of course, Americans, ever on the alert for a good deal, took the hit of crack. William Bennett, who once was a liberal Democrat and now is anything but, suggests that the problem is related, in part, to the “do your own thing” ethic of the 1960s.

What we are refusing to grasp, what perhaps is too unpleasant to confront, is that drug abuse is a cumulative phenomenon. Bell-bottom pants, acid rock, cheap thrills, self-liberation— none of these explains our dilemma except in the most superficial fashion. A guess? A guess would be that for the last quarter century, America has been in a state of seismic flux. Our sense of national unity has been shaken by war and scandal. The economy is vulnerable, prices are staggering, even comfortable people often feel themselves on the brink. Most important, progress on the social front has been slow and difficult. We remain separate, one from another. We have nurtured what appears to be a permanent underclass. We are turning in, instead of reaching out. In some enormous way, we have disappointed ourselves.

President Bush and William Bennett are correct when they say something must be done. We must make more arrests and intercept more shipments and provide more treatment and reach more children. But unless we view the drug epidemic as a disorder of the spirit, we will come no closer to alleviating the agony. If drugs are an escape, we must ask ourselves: an escape from what? Ducking the question is a kind of addiction, too.