Digging Up Truth With a Teaspoon: an Essay In Search of Justice

When he ran for president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte was a mini Donald Trump shooting from the hip to excite populist mob support for his presidential candidacy. Once in office, he followed up on his bloodthirsty rhetoric by encouraging a death-squad sweep through  the island nation that has so far accounted for over two thousands assassinations or executions, whichever term one likes. Reports describe bodies appearing in the streets every morning with signs attached to them suggesting they were drug addicts or dealers — gruesome echoes from the late 70s and early 80s in El Salvador. Dubbed Dirty Harry in the tabloids, President Duterte applauds the piling up of corpses and deems his program a success because drug users are turning themselves in in droves, lest they be murdered. They end up jammed into overcrowded hell-holes. Some end up dead anyway.

As the “leader of the free world,” President Obama was touring Asia shilling for the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. He was eager to “send a clear message that, as a Pacific nation we [the United States] are here to stay.” He planned on visiting Duterte in the Philippines to  scold the new leader on his murderous campaign, but he canceled that visit when Duterte gave a saliva-spitting speech in which he called the president “a son of a whore.” Given his tiny island nation is a client state of the powerful United States, after his insult-riddled speech,  the volatile Filipino president reportedly began to suffer painful migraine headaches. President Duterte has apparently called many people “a son of a whore,” including the Pope; and while hijo de puta in Spanish as spoken in the Philippines means son of a whore, it’s such a  common expression it probably should be translated into English as son of a bitch. A prudent, cool-headed Obama shook off the choice insult. That is, he didn’t respond by calling Mr. Duterte a fish-eating wog or a psychopathic lunatic. Instead, the two men “exchanged pleasantries” at a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Vientiane, Laos.

The hijo de puta flap fortunately did not overshadow the really important news from Obama’s Asian trip, namely that the President of the United States of America “acknowledged” (he pointedly did not apologize for) the U.S. bombing of Laos between 1964 and 1973. “Villages and entire valleys were obliterated,” Obama said. “Countless civilians were killed.” The adjective innocent should have been added between the words countless and civilians. (The U.S. dropped more than two million tons of bombs on Laos; the equivalent of a planeload of bombs every 8 minutes, 24-hours a day, for 9 years.) What the U.S. rained down on Laotian peasantry has been described as, per capita, the heaviest bombing campaign in world history. This is one of many bloody military secrets in our archives; these archives have been open for some years, but the bombing is still not recognized by most Americans for the evil it was. For years, our government kept the secret from Americans; it was obviously never a secret to the Laotian people.

This is the same U.S. president who launched the 50th Commemoration of the Vietnam War in 2012 with a speech at the Vietnam War wall in Washington D.C. That well-funded, controversial campaign is designed to whitewash the Vietnam War within the domestic United States; it ignores, or employs tons of misleading rhetorical sludge, around incidents like the Mai Lai massacre and the killing in Laos of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians and the obliteration of villages and agricultural land. In Southeast Asia, the war’s death toll is estimated between two and three million souls. The 50th Commemoration is about PR and emphasizes American sacrifice and heroism. The truth is buried.

President Obama didn’t go as far as many would have liked in his acknowledgment of the immoral slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Laotians. In 1945, if U.S. leaders had been more concerned for humanity and morality, they would have endorsed our Vietnamese ally against the Japanese and supported Vietnamese independence from a resurgent French colonialism. There would have been no bombing of Laos. Thanks to Cold War hysteria, President Truman made a terrible decision. It has always seemed significant to me that while the Vietnam War and mass bombings were going in Laos President Obama was a young boy living in Indonesia in the home of an Asian stepfather whose family had suffered at the hands of brutal Dutch colonial soldiers. This must give the man a unique international mindset. Besides his race, it’s another biographical fact that must drive the retrograde right nuts.

A Skirmish in the Failed Drug War

The hijo de puta incident amounted to a skirmish in the Drug War. President Duterte’s draconian program of killing drug dealers and users without concern for justice or collateral damage amounts to our current Drug War policy taken to its “final solution” level. If the US has any moral weight in the world (which is a good question these days) the least President Obama should do is put the Duterte regime on a human rights violator watch list and somehow personally squeeze the president and his cronies without hurting the Filipino people. Sadly, if past is prologue, our lame duck imperial president will probably do as he has done with Egypt and Honduras, distract us from the murderous reality and run cover for the killers. The Ronald Reagan model from El Salvador remains the U.S. government standard: Every six months have Congress wink-and-nod and affirm the bloody regime in question has made progress — as the bodies pile higher and higher.

There are positive signs in the U.S. Drug War. There’s the growing examples of legalizing marijuana and the growing legal infrastructure that goes with it; where it’s not legal, marijuana possession is becoming a minor, fineable infraction; we see more and more sensible drug courts and very successful needle-exchange programs. Though movement is rare, we’re hearing lots of positive talk about undoing the mass incarceration problem; it seems the practical act of releasing felons back into the world is too frightening for our leaders. This amounts to a major shift in how our drug problem is seen and addressed.

On one side, there’s the decades-old Drug War and its emphasis on military, police, courts and prisons. The drill is to militarily hunt down and attack gangster drug suppliers as you demonize and incarcerate drug users. There’s still a cultural embargo on practical information about drug use in the mainstream conversation. For example, there are many heroin users — ie. “addicts” — who successfully maintain a job and a family life; I met a number of people like this photographing a needle-exchange program in Philly. One told me she used heroin simply to maintain her life like a diabetic would shoot up insulin. While she regretted being addicted, she used responsibly. We don’t hear about people like this for a good reason: their story goes against the popular addict-as-worthless-sub-human narrative; plus having their story made public would be suicidal in the current climate. The point is, non-threatening and respectful discussion of drug use problems would go a long way to solving many of those problems. Forcing users into a criminal underground where they are hunted by the state only exacerbates drug abuse problems.

The 2012 Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia, hosted by conservative Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos was an example of how a critical dialogue is overwhelmed by distracting stories. Santos and the delegation from Guatemala publicly advocated to attending President Obama for the legalization of drugs, emphasizing that the real problem was demand in his country, the United States; it was not the supply coming from or through their nations in Latin America. Mexico joined Colombia and Guatemala in advocated more discussion on this theme. U.S. demand created the enterprising, ruthless providers supplying that demand from Latin America; U.S. demand was contributing to the corruption in Latin America. The Latin American leaders wanted North Americans to take responsibility for their own problem. Of course, as with gangsterism in the 1930s under Prohibition, the incredible corruption and violence the Drug War had spawned had now become the problem.

Obama ignored the request, and the American people heard none of the important exchange. Instead, thanks to our media’s love of puritanism and sensationalism, we heard about Obama’s Secret Service detail getting laid by high-end prostitutes. There were also rumors floated that some of the president’s security detail had ingested drugs while in Cartagena.

On the other side of this absurd circus is the well-established harm reduction approach that emphasizes the social, medical and rehabilitative aspects of engagement with drug abuse. Since the word social is used and weaponry is downplayed, the right tends to see this as creeping socialism. Basically, harm reduction flows with reality rather than buck it. By seriously addressing the demand side of the equation, these programs necessarily require the de-criminalization of drugs. Instead of police and prisons, realistic information about addiction is made available. People with drug problems are offered real help. Theft, assault, traffic violations and other “crimes” would still be enforced.

The current American dialogue is fledgling, like a baby bird, and easily shot down. Change like this takes time. The failed Drug War has many decades of momentum; plus, it has been a fully bi-partisan project from the beginning supported enthusiastically by the likes of Joe Biden and Bill Clinton, just to name two liberal Democrats who demonized African American drug dealers and helped fuel the mass incarceration of African American males. In Biden’s case, this was specifically so Democrats could get back in the political game after Ronald Reagan’s humiliating victory terrified Democrats; Biden worked hand-in-hand with former Dixiecrat turned “southern strategy” Republican Strom Thurmond on police and crime legislation. Thus, one of the most difficult aspects of de-mobilizing the Drug War is weaning local police departments and federal agencies from their addiction to the Drug War itself. One, the Drug War has significantly defined the purpose of local police since at least the 1980s, and two, the Drug War has enhanced and financed an endless influx of money, technology and militaristic weapons. The Drug War mindset provides an endless supply of what all police departments thrive on: “bad guys.” Separating police from the Drug War is akin to taking guns away from an NRA member.

A Personal Aside: Teaspoons and Truth

For anyone working in the realm of prison reform and advocating sanity in the area of drug policy, the deck is heavily stacked. The only advocates for releasing inmates seem to be the inmates themselves and their tiny, loyal coterie of supporters, of which I am one. To grasp how frustrating this can be, one need only ask: In the current political climate, what self-serving legislator, prison system employee or local police official in their right mind would advocate letting out convicted felons? The answer is only those with the required self-destructive sense of justice. For over a decade I’ve worked this issue from the vantage point of incarcerate veterans. I’ve met inmates in prisons; I taught writing in a Philly prison for 12 years. I’ve spoken with legislators; I sent letters, sent emails and made phone calls to state legislators and their aides in Harrisburg. I’ve worked with groups and I’ve worked individually; I’ve advocated directly in speeches at prison events and elsewhere; I’ve written commentaries — like this one. The result has been a few tentative nibbles, but soon enough the line goes slack. Nothing. Might as well open another beer and share some laughs with your comrades in the boat.

The most telling exchange for me was with an aide to Governor Ed Rendell; she was a respected activist acquaintance from the Philadelphia progressive community. A photographer colleague and I wanted to put together a film about the lives of veterans in Graterford prison. We needed permission from the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, which is a bit like dealing with a Soviet bureaucracy. We had been working with a highly organized group of incarcerated veterans in the prison, some of the men doing Pennsylvania’s unusual life-without-parole sentence for murder.

One Vietnam combat veteran of the famous Battle of the Ia Drang Valley — Commer Glass — was doing life-without-parole for a 1975 killing. Following a habeas corpus hearing, a federal judge had concluded Glass was “innocent” of first-degree-murder and guilty of manslaughter, for which he had served a more than adequate prison term. The fact he was African American and in 1975 had an abysmally incompetent lawyer who never even mentioned PTSD led to the judge’s conclusion that his indictment and conviction for first-degree murder was an “egregious miscarriage of justice.” The judge ordered Glass be re-tried or released. The third circuit court of appeals quickly dismissed the case in a four-page decision, suggesting that Glass’ lawyer should have known about PTSD. The fact he was a lousy lawyer (it turned out, he was mob-connected, had disappeared in the witness protection program for snitching and was now dead) and the fact PTSD wasn’t included in the official Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) until 1980 were irrelevant to the robed eminences of the Third Circuit. Glass is virtually blind and serving his 41st year.

Though the inmates were crying for exposure, the hurdle we encountered was the state bureaucracy’s insistence its prohibition on filming inmates was to protect their privacy. We asked the Rendell aide for help in making some contacts in the capital, Harrisburg, so we might make our case. The Rendell aide said she was interested and would see what she could do. Then, I got an email: “He’s a lifer?” I wrote back: “Yes. We told you that.” I re-told her the story. We never heard from her again. It was clear she’d touched an electrified rail and gotten a jolt that told her we were politically dangerous. This was a progressive activist working for a liberal governor who published a book called A Nation of Wusses: How America’s Leaders Lost the Guts to Make Us Great. The book is an echo of JFK’s Profiles In Courage, a call for moral courage versus cowardly governing by polls. Rendell wanted politicians to stand up for what’s right; he damns flip-flopping, pandering and avoiding the really tough issues. On the back cover, the book features touts by Sean Hannity, Bill Clinton and Chris Matthews. After the governor’s job, Rendell become a paid MSNBC commentator. He even did TV commentary for football games. He’s now a Hillary operative.

When he left office, Governor Rendell had the perfect opportunity to show he wasn’t a “wuss” and to pardon a man like Commer Glass, who is one of a number of veterans, mostly from the Vietnam War, caught up in Pennsylvania’s medieval life-without-parole sentence based entirely on vengeance without an iota of forgiveness allowed into the equation. The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections has its own hospice program with trained inmates working in a special hospice prison for dying inmates. Beyond the $50,000 a year in taxes it costs to keep an aging man in prison, the costs go up when you’re caring for a dying man. Old and dying inmates lucky enough to have attentive families are kept from those families until they are handed to them as a corpse in a box. Now you can have him. Many of these men served their nation as infantrymen in the war for which President Obama just cited the bombing slaughter of hundreds of thousands of innocent peasants. The PTSD these men suffered serving in places like Vietnam often contributed to their crimes. Meanwhile, one of the main architects for the mass killing in Laos, Henry Kissinger, is honored by candidate Hillary Clinton.

The beloved WWII antiwar veteran Kurt Vonnegut would say: “So it goes.”

Working to reveal, and undue, the atrocities of American history, great and small, is very frustrating work. It often feels like one is digging out the truth with a teaspoon. Once you un-earth a nugget of truth there’s always a shiny dump truck with ten tons of self-serving bullshit to unload on the effort. Little or nothing is done. So like Sisyphus and his rock, you hold your nose and keep working that little spoon.

Coda: Getting Beyond the Silly Season

A presidential election may not be the best time to accomplish anything like justice in America. It’s not called “the silly season” for nothing. Even more than normally, reality is shunted to the back of the bus. When such an extended struggle for power is played out on TV as a compelling reality show, who’s got the time to give a damn about those who have suffered injustices at the hands of the American war machine or the American criminal justice system? You have to wonder whether it’s a genius of the system to encourage endless electoral campaigns that keep real governance off balance. It becomes impossible to lobby governing leaders for change because they’re always busy campaigning for their lives. We’re dooming to listening ad nauseum to well-financed, slickly-produced food fights of petty nonsense. Meanwhile, militarism, corporatism and rising technology overwhelms the commonweal and violates it in the bushes.

Justice may be possible if people are willing to fight the way the Standing Rock Sioux are fighting in North Dakota today. The forces of repression, like all bullies, seek weakness and the easy push-over. So you want to make sustaining the status-quo as difficult and costly as possible for the bully. You want to avoid contributing to a vacuum of apathy and passivity.

Let’s hope the real struggle resumes once this absurd extended silly season is over. I got my teaspoon all polished and ready.

JOHN GRANT is a member of ThisCantBeHappening!, the new independent, uncompromised, five-time Project Censored Award-winning online alternative newspaper.