Drug Trafficking and the Politics of Vengeance

Melbourne, Australia.

‘Good people do not need laws to tell them to act responsibly,’ says a quote variously attributed to Plato and Benjamin Franklin, ‘while bad people will find a way around them.’ If this quote applies to anything, it applies as much to the Indonesian state’s execution of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran as it does to the practice of trafficking in illegal drugs of addiction.

Despite high-level advice provided to the Australian government that the executions were illegal under international law,[1] the execution of Chan and Sukumaran has nevertheless inflamed in Australia the types of passions apparently sought in Indonesia by President Joko Widodo, whose popularity has slumped in the wake of his election last year.[2]

The executions are manna from heaven politically for Widodo. Opinion polling in Indonesia shows execution of drug traffickers is a popular policy, with 86% of respondents to one poll pre-executions agreeing that the Indonesian government should ignore protests from the Australian government and proceed regardless. To them, official killing is an expression of strength.[3]

State sanctioned murder is also a popular policy here at home. One notable Facebook post comes from a page entitled ‘Fair Suck Of The Sav, Mate,’ whose byline reads ‘We will defend Australia against the ideology of Islam; If you are not with us, you are helping the enemy.’[4] In this post, which has over 30,000 shares, an unnamed Australian police officer weighs in against ‘hype around the Bali executions.’ It is worth quoting at some length.

‘I can’t believe the mentality of people,’ it begins, invoking offence at the outset:

I have been in law enforcement for 34 years and have worked in many areas within the force. After 9 years in, I spent nearly 5 years working as a UC. (Undercover) attempting to infiltrate traffickers of all types of drugs including amphets right down to simple choof. What a world of pain and misery. I was encased by the filth and self-destruction where I witnessed numerous deaths by either ODs or in a lot of cases suicides. Young girls selling their bodies for 10 bucks a go just to get their hands on their next fix.

The unnamed officer goes from these general comments to discussion of a particular case he a teenage girl with whom he was acquainted, who was hooked by the age of 14 and prostituting herself by 15. ‘Her body was so ripped and torn by drug and sexual abuse,’ he writes, ‘she hariscreamhad intestines falling out of her rectum as a result of numerous rapes and sexual encounters where she tried to get payment.’ He describes the girl as having a baby who was taken away from her by Human Services at 15, who could do nothing for her but supply treatment when they could’ until she died at 19, ‘alone in a back street.’

After weighing in against do-gooders (also unnamed) who would ‘pass her on the street and avoid her all the time’ while he would ‘give her
food but she preferred to starve and get some smack rather than eat,’ the officer describes becoming depressed and having to move to another area. This is an experience he seems to feel might only be understood by his fellow police officers, as to this way of thinking the police apparently have a monopoly on compassion and empathy.

Less understood the unnamed police officer feels is the refusal ‘to call on the PM to “bring our boys home,”’ something he would never do as ‘no boy of mine would do this.’ Again who exactly is referring to Chan and Sukumaran as ‘our boys’ is not mentioned, though it does serve well to validate the author’s general sense of pious ire. ‘But,’ as he continues, apparently rallying against those who oppose the death penalty, ‘all I see is you fucking wanna be Samaritans who treat these two drug kings as heroes.’ While he accept that do-gooding Samaritans don’t believe in the death penalty,’ he claims not to like it either — “but.” The “but” is not long in coming:

The media and the solicitors have played you people for the fools you are. You have never lived in the world of drug, crime and despair. You have been protected from it so much you live in the fantasy world where you believe you can hug everyone and all will be better. You are not qualified to even comment as to whether these guys should get parole or not.

One can hardly argue with the idea that the mass media spend a lot of time playing people for fools, but nowhere in this piece does this unnamed officer state which section of the media he imagines has been trying to make Chan and Sukumaran out to be heroes. One does not imagine he means the Murdoch media, for example. Nor does he state which solicitors think the problem of drug trafficking and abuse of drugs of addition is going to be fixed with a group hug, though despite claiming to have been affected by the experience of meeting with one addict, this does not seem to translate into anything much in the way of compassion for slaves of drugs of addiction as a group, which he insolently equates with the belief that ‘you can hug everyone and all will be better.’

This fact in particular would seem to give us some insight into the logic the unnamed writer of this online rant is following. The problem as he sees it apparently has something to do with the culture of permissiveness that resulted in the paroling of Adrian Bayley, currently serving a life sentence for the rape and murder of Jill Meagher in 2012. ‘You paroled him,’ he says angrily. ‘You say the parole board stuffed up and parole him.’ But, he insists, the parole board is full of people just like those who oppose the death penalty and would have had Chan and Sukumaran repatriated to Australia, ‘with your opinions and beliefs.’

Which opinions and beliefs in particular he does not say, nor does he explain what makes his own unqualified opinions any more valid than anyone elses, though he does point out correctly enough the obvious fact that that the paroling of Bayley, whose tally of victims stands at around 20, ‘was a complete and utter failure.’

This piece of shit was a career rapist and the only ones we can blame for what he did is all of us. Not the judge. Not the Parole board or the police. Us. The decisions like this that are being made are by people who never have to deal with these shitheads when they are in street mode committing crimes. You see them all clean shaven and in their court suits or white shirts becoming born again etc. You poor misguided fools. You don’t even care about the effects of what they have done to our society.

In a sense of course, the unnamed police officer is perfectly correct. Bayley was paroled despite being a serial rapist and future murderer because of the actual culture of permissiveness surrounding misogyny and rape, particularly where the tendency to victim blame is concerned. The perceived culture of permissiveness informing a principled defense of civil liberties no more played a part than did the basic moral principle infants are taught to understand in kindergarten that two wrongs don’t make a right.

The confusion, whether accidental or intended, functions as it happens to shift the blame away from the former; while claiming an overarching insight into the nature of crime by virtue of policing it (as opposed to being a victim), the unnamed writer who is presumably white and male accuses civil libertarians of being ignorant of the consequences of crime. At the same time he neglects to refer to the arguments of women writers critical of the paroling of Bayley in the aftermath of his murder of Jill Meagher as if these were at all hard to come by.

Presumably at least some of those who oppose the actual culture of permissiveness surrounding the apportioning of blame onto the victim rather than the perpetrator are themselves victims of rape. This would appear to belie the author’s pretense to having special insight into the nature of victimhood.

Not that this appears to make a great deal of difference. In the face of what the officer seems to see as the casual indifference of do-gooder Samaritans such as those who oppose the culture of permissiveness surrounding misogyny and rape toward the reality on the street, he argues for tougher penalties such as those he claims were in force 34 years ago when he joined the police force. ‘We called it “Marijuana,”’ he says. ‘It was the biggest thing on the street,’ claiming that, as against the drug importing of the present and suspended sentences he claims are the norm in the present, crime back then was not rampant.

‘Now,’ says the unnamed officer says, ‘here we are,’ enjoying the rotten fruits of a system apparently based on permissiveness. ‘Your system has worked hasn’t it,’ he bitterly laments. Not only are those who oppose the death penalty for drug crimes guilty of opposing the death penalty, which this writer seems to equate with raising Chan and Sukumaran to the level of heroes, they are also infamously wont to ‘voice how much you hate police’ while ‘ring[ing] us and run[ing]’ inside and hide whilst we come out and deal with the shit you don’t have the fucking guts to deal with yourself.’

In this way does a piece that apparently begins as an attempt at least to make a disinterested defense of helpless victims against unnamed permissive do-gooders degenerate into a self-righteous screed against critics of the police. ‘But you are right up there on your keyboards bravely shit canning the police for excessive force and filming it on your cameras,’ the writer inveighs, as if it is not those who use excessive force who shit can themselves.

This comment becomes the foundation for the unnamed writer’s final burst of righteous fury, in which he castigates the permissive do-gooders for having no knowledge or interest in Henry Chinn, ‘on death row in China for trying to smuggle 270 grams of meth into our lovely country in 2004.’ The problem in this case appears to be that ‘the media hasn’t spoon fed you the crap to hype you up.’ The same seems to go for Davis and Gardiner, ‘the two Aussies who were caught in China in last year trying to cart 75kg of ice to here? Davis and Gardiner.’ Pointing out that China has executed in excess of 1000 people in a 12 month period, the author lashes his critics for hypocrisy: ‘But you still buy their shit every day.’

These two Australians will be executed and you will still buy their product. Second chance you say. You think these people have no prior convictions. You think this is their first attempt. Wake up fools. Stop hugging yourselves. Two men died today because they broke a law in a country where they knew they faced death if caught. Had they have got away with it, there would be a countless number of 19 year old girls laying in the gutter dead. Quick run inside and tell yourself what a great person you are.

In the face of the author’s obvious anger, it is on first reading not an easy task to rejoinder. On the second, it seems obvious that neither any of the examples cited by the writer, nor the high profile arrest of Schapelle Corby in Bali seven months before the Bali Nine, had much deterrent effect on them, much less to say others executed for heroin trafficking such as Kevin Barlow and Brian Chambers in Malaysia in 1983, nor Michael McAuliffe again in Malaysia in 1985.

The 2002 arrest and conviction in Singapore for drug trafficking offenses of Van Tuong Nguyen from Melbourne appeared to have little effect on any of the Bali Nine, even though that charge carried the death penalty which the Singaporean state carried out in December 2005. Nor do they appear to have any effect on the aforementioned Australians presently languishing in Chinese prisons.

On the face of these examples, it appears that the unnamed police officer writing on Facebook is actually blaming civil libertarians for the shortcomings of the deterrence approach to policing. If deterrence worked the way those who rally against do-gooder Samaritans seem to imagine it does, one would imagine there would be little or no crime.

By the unnamed writer’s own admission, however, if the Indonesian state had not followed through on its policy of executing drug traffickers for the sake of President Joko Widodo, ‘there would be a countless number of 19 year old girls laying in the gutter dead.’ If that is true, as the anonymous author certainly appears to believe it is, then that would appear to be either the consequence of a failed policy, or as good as having no policy, or both.

This being the case, in addition to raising questions about the logic driving apologia for handing the power of life and death to the state, a power freely exercised by tyrants throughout history in the name of defending society, conflated with itself, from any manner of evils, it also brings us back our original question of what to do about those who flout drug trafficking laws in light of the obvious shortcomings cum failure of the policy of deterrence on the one hand, and the puerile attempt to appear strong to those who identify strength with cruelty, malice and vengeance — especially where this is a politically expedient method of boosting political popularity and one’s standing in opinion polls.

If the anonymous Facebook writer who believes the Samaritan do-gooders are to blame for the failures of received policing strategies to deter people from drug trafficking and thus to prevent people from taking drugs of addition, scientists exploring the causes of addiction empirically in laboratories and publishing in peer-reviewed journals perhaps unsurprisingly come up with different arguments — and ones supported by evidence at that.

Reviewing one particularly significant series of experiments, Johann Hari, a Cambridge politics graduate and author of Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs reveals that the traditional tendency to blame the drug problem on the individual addict as per the received wisdom on social media reviewed above is actually at odds the discoveries made therein.[5] He notes:

This theory was first established is through rat experiments, — ones that were injected into the American psyche in the 1980s, in a famous advert by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America. Put a rat in a cage, alone, with two water bottles. One is just water. The other is water laced with heroin or cocaine. Almost every time you run this experiment, the rat will become obsessed with the drugged water, and keep coming back for more and more, until it kills itself. The advert explains: “Only one drug is so addictive, nine out of ten laboratory rats will use it. And use it. And use it. Until dead. It’s called cocaine. And it can do the same thing to you.”

Problematic for this experiment as an explanation for the condition of the addict, Bruce Alexander felt, was that the rat was in the case with nothing to do all day but take drugs. Wondering what would happen if he tried the altered the parameters of the experiment, he built Rat Park, as Hari puts it, ‘a lush cage where the rats would have colored balls and the best rat-food and tunnels to scamper down and plenty of friends: everything a rat about town could want.’

In Rat Park, all the rats obviously tried both water bottles, because they didn’t know what was in them. But what happened next was startling . . . The rats with good lives didn’t like the drugged water. They mostly shunned it, consuming less than a quarter of the drugs the isolated rats used. None of them died. While all the rats who were alone and unhappy became heavy users, none of the rats who had a happy environment did.

As Hari notes, Alexander had a useful human situation to compare to the rat experiment, for anyone given to the thought that the behavior demonstrated in this experiment was ‘merely a quirk of rats.’ This example was the Vietnam War, where ‘Time magazine reported using heroin was “as common as chewing gum” among U.S. soldiers’; Hari notes that a study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry found that ‘some 20 percent of U.S. soldiers had become addicted to heroin there,’ prompting fears that ‘a huge number of addicts were about to head home when the war ended.’ Fortunately for everyone, and

. . . some 95 percent of the addicted soldiers — according to the same study — simply stopped. Very few had rehab. They shifted from a terrifying cage back to a pleasant one, so didn’t want the drug any more.

The parallel Alexander was able to draw with his rats was revelatory; as Hari points out it was clear to him then that ‘addiction is an adaptation… It’s not you. It’s your cage.’[6] In other words, it was and is primarily a social problem rather than an individual one — to the extent that we assume that we are all responsible for society at least, though some famous proponents of the Drug War have been known to proclaim that no such thing exists.

In addition to being a ‘profound challenge both to the right-wing view that addiction is a moral failing caused by too much hedonistic partying, and the liberal view that addiction is a disease taking place in a chemically hijacked brain,’ this is likewise a profound challenge to Hari’s eponymous Drug War and the national and international policing strategies associated with it, particularly to the extent that the problem tends to be blamed on individuals rather than being treated as the collective one that it appears to be in reality.

On the one hand then is the lack of evidence to suggest the strategy of deterrence behind the execution of drug traffickers is an effective one, much less to say the tortured logic of some of those who seek to shift the blame for its shortcomings onto civil libertarians. On the other is explicit evidence to suggest that social factors not easy explained away by the belief that the number of people of people who believe an idea determines whether it is true or not are to blame.

In the face of these, one might argue then that, on balance, the continuance of Drug War policies, if not to say the pretense that you practically have to lust for blood to oppose the personal social effects of drugs of addiction, merely up the ante for those who are going to break anti-trafficking laws regardless. They would also appear to provide the crime industry with a never ending supply of deviants requiring social control, and thus never ending reasons to invest more and more heavily in instruments of social repression — music to the ears no doubt of investors in companies operating in the ever-expanding security industry.

Preying on the weak by getting them hooked on drugs of addiction for which they have to pay endlessly is indefensible; purveyors of booze and cigarettes combined kill hundreds of thousands every year. This is no less true of heroin. Why this justifies giving the state the right to kill remains to be explained. In the long run, dealing with the causes of addition might be a better approach than the old two wrongs make a right routine. While shooting traffickers may be immensely gratifying to some in the short term, beyond that it virtually guarantees the continuation of the drug problem as a social ill.

Worse, the use of state power to exact vengeance sets a dangerous precedent; states have throughout history, do and will continue to kill in numbers far outweighing traffickers of heroin, heroin itself or together with all other drugs combined. This is a fact invisible to those whose slander of civil libertarians appears to constitute their means of finding a way around international laws against summary execution for which they don’t feel like exercising responsibility and respect for the rights of the individual in general.

Ben Debney is a PhD candidate in the School of Politics and International Relations at Deakin University, Melbourne. He is researching moral panics and the political economy of scapegoating.


[1] http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/chan-and-sukumaran-execution-illegal-but-indonesia-ignores-australia-again-20150501-1my3z4.html

[2] http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-32502385

[3] http://theconversation.com/bali-nine-duo-executed-the-view-from-indonesia-38392


[5] http://www.brucekalexander.com/articles-speeches/277-rise-and-fall-of-the-official-view-of-addiction-6

[6] http://www.chasingthescream.com/; http://www.huffingtonpost.com/johann-hari/the-real-cause-of-addicti_b_6506936.html

Ben Debney is the author of The Oldest Trick in the Book: Panic-Driven Scapegoating in History and Recurring Patterns of Persecution (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020).