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Drug Wars


In Baltimore, the murder toll hit 200 in mid-August, and is expected to easily surpass 300 by the end of the year. Baltimore’s murder rate is slightly down from record highs 10 years ago, though, when the city counted a murder a day. Since the mid 1980s, that puts the death toll of Charm City’s mean streets at around 6000- far more than that of the 30 year civil war in Northern Ireland. Baltimore- and Newark, Detroit, Philadelphia, New Orleans, Washington D.C., and so many other impoverished urban centers- is the front line of a very real, very bloody Drug War, with cocaine and heroin taking center stage.

In Afghanistan, meanwhile, the New York Times reports this week how record levels of opium poppies are being harvested once again, which is no small matter for a nation responsible for over 90% of worldwide heroin supply. This is due in large part to the resurgence of the Taliban, apparently, who are longstanding proponents of heroin production. In Taliban-controlled provinces, heroin production has more than doubled from only last year!

On the military front, this news is humiliating on two counts. On the one hand, our forces cannot stifle a robust drug trade surging right under its occupation. On the other hand, our technologically superior army- the best equipped in the world, loaded with an embarrassment of riches from the biggest defense industry on the planet- is rebuffed by a scraggly 3rd world militia. The message this sends to our global enemies regarding US military capabilities should rightfully trouble the generals. And if our politicians had any spine, they would reform our national defense spending, for clearly Lockheed Martin is not providing what we need to succeed in either front of our War on Terror- a lesson learned at tremendous cost to boot.

Politically, news of the Taliban’s military and drug-related successes evokes memories of WMDs and this administration’s famous argument for invading Iraq in 2003. Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld et al claimed that the regime of Saddam Hussein posed an imminent threat to the safety and welfare of the American people. If that is the standard for US invasions, surely the Taliban has merited that designation for a very, very long time.

Our president pointed to shadowy missiles in the Iraqi desert, and warned that they were directed our way. He claimed that Saddam threatened our allies in the Middle East, and the oil reserves upon which we desperately rely. None of these claims were immediately convincing, and warranted serious work on the part of Colin Powell and friends. For almost two decades, however, and continuing through today, the Taliban has been at the root of very real blood spilt on American streets.

There is no mystery or confusion surrounding the Taliban’s link to our urban drug war, and the American lives it costs. The Taliban encourages heroin production, offers the industry government protection, and arranges the export of this elicit substance. The Taliban is in cahoots with global drug traders, sending the stuff on its way to Baltimore’s dealers and addicts. In short, the Taliban is clearly a drug regime, responsible for sowing social mayhem worldwide.

On American shores, the murders of the drug trade are only its most obvious mark of destruction. In truth, the social devastation it has inflicted runs deep: lives ruined by heroin addiction, both physically and psychologically; families ripped apart by resident addicts; entire neighborhoods rendered unlivable by drug violence. Baltimore knows countless children orphaned by addict parents, who, thanks to familial and social instability, become destined for crime – or addiction, too. Vast tracts of the city are literally destroyed by the drug war, with entire blocks standing vacant and decrepit, now housing only addicts and rats. Baltimore has lost 200,000 residents in the past two decades- a quarter of its population- due in large part to the social ravages of drugs. There is no doubt about it- unless you choose to ignore it: Baltimore is a war zone.

By these accounts, heroin starts to sound like a weapon of mass destruction originating from a willful regime half a world away. And yet, heroin was never seriously invoked in the rush to war in 2002. We should wonder why. This is not to say that we should have waged war with the Taliban on this pretense, for surely, our drug war cannot be solved through military action only, if at all. This is to say, however, that heroin eradication should have been a priority once we invaded Afghanistan, at least tantamount to the capture of Bin Laden. Instead, the national focus was quickly shifted to unclear targets and objectives in Iraq- on the pretense of national security concerns- while heroin and its trade openly kills Americans everyday.

If a national, social threat ­ with a considerable number of American lives at stake- is enough to incur significant international action and attention of the US government, then few threats have merited it more than the Afghan heroin industry and the Taliban who supports it. Iraq was never a clear danger; the poppy fields of the Helmand are and were. A government that truly concerns itself with homeland security in the most literal sense of the word must wage a multi-pronged war on drugs, on the streets of Baltimore, Kabul and Bogota alike. And a successful war waged on these fronts will look less like a military campaign than a socioeconomic one, for, as is well documented, entrenched poverty drives Afghanis and Colombians to cultivate narcotics, and Americans to consume and deal them.

It is perennially remarkable how Americans ignore devastation that goes on right under their noses, in Baltimore’s ghettos, in Detroit, Newark- in Washington, only blocks from the White House. Lives are lost daily in gruesome fashion, and tens of thousands of others are lost tediously and excruciatingly over time. But this urban massacre has never been cause for military action of any kind (Does Colombia count? I’m not sure.). Granted, this massacre is complex and messy – but there is no doubt about its occurrence, or about the horrific nature of its progress. It is simply the monster we Americans choose to live with daily- and ignore- while challenging less known and less clear dangers abroad. Bin Laden is a known danger, naturally, but hardly better known than the heroin that kills hundreds of Baltimoreans every year.

We have put a major American security threat on the back burner. This naturally leads one to wonder why. The complexity and expense of fighting drugs come to mind. But it is tempting to suppose that the demographics of drug war casualties may be responsible, too. The vast majority of Baltimore’s street victims are poor and African American. The urban black community disproportionately bears the brunt of the drug war- this is an indisputable fact. When we choose to devote trillions of dollars to a war in Iraq with no clear objective and plan, and now we see for no clear reason, we essentially announce to the African American community that we are sacrificing it- that it is unworthy of our attention, though its multiple sufferings are apparent to all.

The conclusion, I believe, is clear. The next time we are tempted to embark on international ventures in the interest of national security, we must be honest about real sources of harm at work in our homeland, before our very eyes. And more likely than not- though this is politically unappealing, tedious and extremely challenging- it will require that attention be paid domestically first and foremost.

FIRMIN DeBRABANDER is a Professor of Philosophy at the Maryland Institute College of Art. Email:



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