Thursday, July 31, 2014

THE SINS OF THE STONE-CASTER



C.S. Lewis claimed that our morality not only allows us to tell right from wrong, it also tells us something about the nature of the universe as a whole.  But maybe all our morality really does is prompt us to label things as “right” and “wrong;” and maybe all it tells us about the universe is that we cannot help but judge everything in it as either one or the other.

Maybe the “original sin” in the Garden of Eden was not disobedience, in other words, but the act of passing moral judgment itself. In this sense, God forbid the eating of the apple from the tree of Knowledge, not because it would empower humanity with the ability to discern good from evil, but because it would lead humanity to divide everything into categorical boxes of right and wrong. And from that first moral judgment, only an endless sea of judgments would follow.

Adam and Eve were ashamed after they ate the apple, which caused them to run away from each other and hide. They did this because the apple led them to believe they possessed a divine knowledge of right and wrong - but they didn’t. They were ashamed, not because they had learned that they were naked, but because they had both learned to judge themselves, and each other, as being somehow "wrong" for being naked.  In contrast, Adam named the animals but he did not judge them, which is why he never considered it “wrong” for them to remain naked.

The devil's trick, then, was to tell people that the sensation they developed to make moral judgments about everything, a sensation that came only after eating the apple, was what it felt like to be God. And we have been judging each other,  as if we were God, ever since.  In fact, today, we judge everything - from people, to actions, to even our ideas - as being either right or wrong.  But it is the act of making moral judgments that is the real poison.The serpent had not succeeded in forcing God to judge his children, in other words, because the love of a parent precludes such judgments, but to trick children into forever judging them self as being forever unworthy of such love.

Evil, in this sense, is simply the act of passing moral judgment on others, and hell is what it feels like to be judged, and both flow from an apple filled with fear.  One of the worst fears we face as human beings, in fact, one which we have all faced at one time or another, is the fear of being judged.  And perhaps the worst judge of all is ourselves.  Insecurity, depression, and even drug addiction, are all the result of a relentless act of self-judgment that repeatedly pierces our sense of self worth like a crown of thorns. To escape such judgments, which are often conveyed with all the forgiveness of a nail, some will even choose to end their own life.

When Jesus said we must become like children, he meant we must acquire a state of mind that is engendered by innocence.  New born infants have no fear, and therefore pass no judgments.   We, on the other hand, started passing moral judgments about each other only after Adam and Eve ate that fateful apple, and we stopped seeing each other as one and the same, and began to see ourselves as separated, different, and dangerous.

Christ did not say “judge not lest ye be judged” because God would judge those who judged others, but because he knew that the judgments of one person was the result of fear, which could spread across a population like a virus, ricocheting off of everyone in its path.  Ironically, perhaps nothing demonstrates better just how connected we are to each other than the spread of such a virus. Freedom comes first and only, therefore, from learning not to judge ourselves, either by comparing ourselves to others or to the impossible standards of an omnipotent deity.  Only by so doing can we learn to love ourselves unconditionally, and by extension, all others.

The problem we face today is that we are continually taught to judge right from wrong, and thus we judge ourselves and everyone else, in accord with a system of “beliefs” we were taught to defend. Christ, who came to free humanity from this very prison, has been used only to strengthen it instead. And by fixing our eyes on a degree of perfection that can never be obtained, we see only imperfection in our self and in everyone around us.  The idea that God was “perfect” did not make us better, but worse, as we readily climbed over each other in the endless pursuit of a human ideal that we could never possibly achieve.

 Because Jesus was without sin, when he said, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone,” he was obviously referring to himself; yet he did not cast a stone. Instead, he made it clear that no one would continue to judge the woman, and neither would he. Perhaps this is because he realized that the only sin we are all guilty of, and indeed perhaps the only evil that exists in the world, comes from the hand of the stone-caster.

Monday, July 14, 2014

The PICWOD: The White Whale of American Racism

In 1851, Herman Melville wrote an epic sea story of an ill-fated whaling ship that would become one of the Great American Classics.  In the story, an obsessed whaling ship captain hunts a ferocious, enigmatic white whale named Moby Dick, and willingly sacrifices the lives of his entire crew in the process. A central part of the story is a Nantucket whale-ship called the Pequod.  Like Melville’s tale, America’s hunt to solve its drug problems have been conducted with similar obsession, on a similarly ill-fated ship. That ship is made up of the Prison Industrial Complex and the War on Drugs, or like the ship in Melville’s tale of a crew doomed by its captain, the ‘PICWOD.’  The only difference between the two is that one was a whaling ship and the other is a slave ship.

 Melville’s description is equally applicable to both ships, however, with each being a “cannibal of a craft” that "tricks herself forth in the chased bones of her enemies."  To destroy all those it preys upon, the U.S. PICWOD uses the harpoons of mandatory sentencing and the lances of asset forfeiture. Both amount to systems of forced labor and financial extraction, social removal and asset acquisition, and while one giveth, the other taketh away. 

Asset Forfeiture

Asset forfeiture is a system designed to protect society by taking things from the accused and giving them to the accuser. It is a system of redistributive justice, in other words, where the accused is guilty until proven otherwise, and it's their burden to prove it ain't so. Columnist Sara Stillman explains it this way: “Americans who haven’t been charged with wrongdoing can be stripped of their cash, cars, and even homes.”[i] According to U.S. Representative Henry Hyde, it “has allowed police to view all of America as some giant national K-Mart, where prices are not just lower, but non-existent — a sort of law enforcement 'pick-and-don't-pay.'"[ii]  Likewise, Mitch Miller and Lance Selva assert that research findings suggest “asset forfeiture is a dysfunctional policy. Forfeiture programs, while serving to generate income, prompt drug enforcement to serve functions that are inherently contradictory and often at odds with the demands of justice."[iii]

So, what is Asset Forfeiture and where did it come from? 

In 1984, the Federal Crime Bill contained a section that changed the incentives that police have in fighting the war on drugs. Police on state and local levels who cooperate with federal agencies in drug investigations, the bill determined, would share in assets seized. This included boats, houses, money, cars, planes, jewelry, clothes and even gold teeth. This change on the federal level also changed the incentives of the police in many states on the local level. 

Prior to the Federal Crime Bill, many local and state laws allocated funds generated from asset seizure toward education or local funds. Now, police get to keep those funds.[iv] As one study concluded, since the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984, "[t]he relative allocation of state and local law enforcement resources has shifted dramatically towards drug enforcement, the major source of asset confiscations."[v]


The Department of Justice, which administers this program federally, then went a step further and said they would adopt a policy where local seizures would be seen as if they were part of a cooperative federal effort.  As a result, all local seizures could now flow to the police, rather than to where state law had designated. And since the DOJ’s change in policy, there has been a dramatic increase in seizures by local and state police agencies.[vi]

The process works like this:  Once the officers seize the drug dealers on a particular corner, they’ll then open up shop as the ‘new drug dealers on the block.’ Then, they seize the assets of anyone trying to purchase drugs from them, and charge that person with a misdemeanor, usually resulting in probation, rehabilitation, and fines and costs. In this way, the courts and the cities make money off the fines and the costs and the police department makes money from the assets seized.[vii]


 Predictably, the level of seizures has exploded since 1984, according to one study. “You don’t even have to be proven guilty. The legal fiction is that the car committed the crime. So, if you buy or sell cocaine from the car, the fiction is that the car committed the crime. You don’t even have to arrest the person and you can just take the car. “[viii]

Two professors in economics who have studied this problem intensively, David Rasmussen and Bruce Benson, admit to having seen films where a person is stopped on the highway, asked if the police can search the car, and the officers find $800. The officers than say, “we’re going to seize this $800 because we believe it was obtained in a drug deal.”[ix] Because it is a civil, not a criminal proceeding, you have to prove it was not obtained through a drug transaction.[x] In a civil proceeding you are guilty until proven innocent. “The real problem is not in police behavior,” Benson argues,” but in how the law was structured.” An officer interviewed admits,” we can seize jewelry, ear rings, gold teeth, clothes, watches, belts, shoes, jackets, anything that’s worth any value we can actually seize.”[xi]

Rasmussen and Benson further illustrate their point with the story of a ranch, in Southern California, that the policed attempted to seize.  “The police decided to raid (this ranch) because they suspected that there were marijuana plants on the property.  So, when they raided it and the owner tried to defend his property using a gun, because allegedly he didn’t know who was raiding his house, he was killed.  A subsequent investigation found no marijuana plants on the property. The investigation also discovered that the police had gotten an assessment on the value of the property before the raid. Apparently, the police felt it was an especially nice piece of property and wanted to seize it.”[xii]

This problem can arise whenever you have a drug enforcement unit that is “self funded” or directly benefits from the assets seized.  A police force that has a “marijuana squad,” for example, will be tasked with paying their own way through asset forfeitures. This creates a very strong incentive to keep your job. So officers go fishing where they know they can catch the most fish. The ponds where the easiest fish are caught with the least amount of struggle tend, of course, to be poor African American neighborhoods. The result is “entire generations… and entire communities are being shaped by this war on drugs.”[xiii]

There has been some reform in this area in an attempt to alleviate the problems that the 1984 Act created. The Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act of 2000 (CAFRA), for example, “made several changes to federal forfeiture law. Key provisions of the law include the creation of an innocent owner defense (for cases in which an innocent individual's property is targeted for forfeiture) and a shift in the burden of proof from the property owner to the government. Concerning the latter, property owners were previously required to prove their property was not subject to forfeiture. Now the government must prove by a preponderance of the evidence that property is subject to forfeiture. Although CAFRA minimized much of the controversy associated with asset forfeiture, several criticisms of the practice still stand out.[xiv]

Indeed, despite such reforms, problems still persist with asset seizure programs. One example of such problems harkens back to the days of Martin Luther's protests against the Roman Catholic Church over its sale of Indulgences to pay for its cathedrals. Like in the days of the Reformation, the wealthy can always find a way to buy their way into Heaven or out of Jail.  


Appearance of Impropriety

According to the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing,” Forfeiture windfalls can also reek of impropriety. For example, some small town agencies have received an excess of forfeiture proceeds and used the money to purchase items that some considered unnecessary.  Some jurisdictions have also received negative publicity for controversial plea agreements with known drug offenders. In one case, a dealer faced 15 years in prison under one state's tough anti-drug laws. The dealer surrendered his interest in $31,300 in cash seized from his apartment and received only a five-year prison term. Plea agreements such as these raise several questions, and, to some, seem like a version of sanctioned extortion. Researchers have uncovered many other examples of questionable forfeiture-related plea agreements that look at least somewhat questionable.[xv]

The Double-Edged Sword undercover researcher observed agencies abandon investigations of suspects they knew were trafficking large amounts of contraband simply because the case was not profitable. Agents routinely targeted low level dealers rather than big traffickers, who are better able to insulate themselves and their assets from reverse sting operations.  The report states: "Efficiency is measured by the amount of money seized rather than impact on drug trafficking."[xvi]

Instead, a "reverse sting operation, where the officer becomes the seller who encourages the suspect to commit a crime, "was the preferred strategy of every agency and department with which the researcher was associated because it allowed agents to gauge potential profit prior to investing a great deal of time and effort." More importantly, the narcotics units studied preferred seizing cash intended for purchase of drugs supplied by the police, rather than confiscating drugs already on the street. When asked why a search warrant would not be served on a suspect known to have resale quantities of contraband, one officer responded:  

"Because that would just give us a bunch of dope and the hassle of having to book him (the suspect). We've got all the dope we need in the property room, just stick to rounding up cases with big money and stay away from warrants."[xvii] 

In an important case, Austin v. United States, the Supreme Court addressed a challenge to a civil forfeiture action on the grounds that it violated the excessive fines clause of the Eighth Amendment. It held that "forfeiture generally and statutory in rem forfeiture in particular, historically have been understood, at least in part, as punishment" and that "[w]e therefore conclude that forfeiture under these provisions constitutes 'payment to a sovereign as punishment for some offense,' and, as such, is subject to the limitations of the Eighth Amendment's Excessive Fines Clause.[xviii]

Despite such findings and the ruling by SCOTUS, the U.S. PICWOD sales on, and always with an increasing number of  pundits and politicians willing to sacrifice the lives of their constituency to procure an election. Winning public office is what matters most, even if that means sacrificing everyone on board to achieve it. After all, it's not about what works, but what wins an election.




[i] http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2013/08/12/130812fa_fact_stillman?currentPage=all


[iii] Mitchell Miller & Lance H. Selva, Drug Enforcement's Double Edged Sword: An Assessment of Asset Forfeiture Programs  (Twelve month empirical examination of the implementation of laws from within the forfeiture program

[iv]  "The Prison Industrial Complex and the War on Drugs" Documentary

[v] Benson, Rasmussen, and Sollars (1995), p. 38. 

[vi] Id.

[vii] Id.

[viii]  Id.

[ix]  Id.

[x]  Id.

[xi]Id.

.[xii]Id.

[xiii]Id. 

[xiv]http://www.popcenter.org/Responses/asset_forfeiture/print/

[xv] http://www.popcenter.org/Responses/asset_forfeiture/6/#endref60

[xvi] http://fear.org/


[xvii]Id.

[xviii] Austin v. United States, 509 U.S. 602(1993), p. 622

Friday, July 4, 2014

The War on Drugs: From Feedback Loop to Self-Fulfilling Exorcism



America’s modern War on Drugs is actually an internalized continuation of America’s involvement in the Vietnam War, with the former being an even bigger quagmire than the latter. As Linda Evans and Eve Goldberg have pointed out, closing the door on Ho Chi Minh in South Vietnam meant opening the door to heroin in America. Evans and Goldberg explain: 
 
“During the Vietnam War, the CIA aided the heroin producing Hmong tribesmen in the Golden Triangle area. In return for cooperation with the U.S. government’s war against the Vietcong and other national liberation forces, the CIA flew local heroin out of Southeast Asia and into America.”[i]

   
A decade later, Oliver North would use the lessons of Vietnam to bypass the U.S. Congress and provide support for the Contras in Nicaragua. 

Having the CIA ship heroin into the United States allowed President Nixon to declare a “war on drugs” in June 1971. That declaration of war allowed him to dramatically increase “the size and presence of federal drug control agencies,” and push “through measures such as mandatory sentencing and no-knock warrants.” He likewise “temporarily placed marijuana in Schedule One, the most restrictive category of drugs, pending review by a commission he appointed led by Republican Pennsylvania Governor Raymond Shafer. In 1972, the commission unanimously recommended decriminalizing the possession and distribution of marijuana for personal use. Nixon ignored the report and rejected its recommendations.”[ii] (Emphasis added)

Between 1973 and 1977, however, eleven states decriminalized marijuana possession and in January 1977, "President Jimmy Carter was inaugurated on a campaign platform that included marijuana decriminalization'”  Ten months later, in October 1977, “the Senate Judiciary Committee voted to decriminalize possession of up to an ounce of marijuana for personal use.” Within just a few years, though, the tide had shifted.[iii]

By the 1980’s, cocaine from Columbia was increasingly finding its way into the United States. That cocaine came by way of Central America, which was the strategic halfway point for air travel between Columbia and the U. S. The Contra War against Sandinista Nicaragua, as well as the war against the national liberation forces in El Salvador,” according to Evans and Goldberg, “was largely about control of this critical area.” 

Oliver North, who was a platoon commander during the Vietnam War, decided that defeating the communist Sandinistas in Nicaragua meant he would have to do with the Contras what the CIA had done with the Hmong tribesman of the Golden Triangle.  In order to defeat Communism, in other words, America would have to deal drugs.  As Evans and Goldberg explained further; 

When congress cut off support for the Contras, Oliver North and friends found other ways to fund the Contra re-supply operations, in part though drug dealing. Planes loaded with arms for the Contras took off from the southern U.S., offloaded their weapons on private landing strips in Honduras, and then loaded up with cocaine for the return trip.[iv]

With drugs once again being brought into the U.S. by the U.S., Ronald Regan would follow Nixon’s lead, and again declare a “war on drugs.” The result, naturally, was the increase in spending to protect the American people from their own drug pushing government. Twice in the latter half of the twentieth century, in other words, the “war on drugs” was declared by presidents who presided over the shipping of drugs into America.  And both times, the "war" on drugs was simply America’s internalization of a war on communism abroad.


The Racism of a Moral Imperative

Of course, all of this simply explains the mechanics of the war on drugs, not the moral justification that politicians used for pushing the war to win votes and re-institute slavery. That justification came, as it almost always does, in the form of racism masquerading as a means of national security and morality. As Maia Szalavitz pointed out in 2012:
 
[I]t’s useful to remember that the nation’s vehement anti-drug rhetoric is rooted in explicit racism. For example, the first state laws banning cocaine were passed in response to media reports about how the drug made black men homicidal, prone to raping white women and, worst of all to the police, impervious to bullets. An article about the issue in the New York Times in 1914 was headlined “Negro Cocaine ‘Fiends’ Are a New Southern Menace.”[v]

Unfortunately, such racism still exists, despite what many people believe.   As Szalavitz further points out, “The American Coalition -- an anti-immigrant group -- claimed as recently as 1980: "Marihuana, perhaps now the most insidious of narcotics, is a direct byproduct of unrestricted Mexican immigration."[vi]

A media blitz that nightly prophesied about the coming of an almost apocalyptic “crime wave” would soon follow.  And the only way to stop it, many were then duped into believing, was by means of prohibition and punishment.  This meant protecting America’s moral virtues with a chastity belt and a bullwhip.  Ensuring Americans would not become victims of this fantasy crime wave required victimizing poor African American’s and re-enslaving them by the thousands.   However well-intentioned the War on Drugs may have been in theory, it amounted to nothing more than slavery by another name in practice.   Eventually, the profit motive produced a momentum too hard to resist, and the propaganda machine such motives produced would surpass even the efforts of Joseph Goebbels. 

“The corporate mass media had learned that drug war imagery was good for sales, and so the nation was hit not only with presidential warnings but with offerings such as “American Vice: The Doping of a Nation,” 48 hours on Crack Street,” and “Cocaine County.” Televisions and print media produced several stereotypical tropes in this era, notably the “crack house” the “crack mother” and “crack baby” to scare the reading and viewing public into demonizing the crack user as a diabolical criminal. In fact, the three major networks and the New York Times and Washington Post quadrupled their news coverage of crack between 1983 and 1986; at the height of this frenzy, in April of 1986, public opinion polls found 2 percent of the population who considered drugs to be the nation’s number-one problem, but six months later, in September, 13 percent of Americans polled by the same NY Times/CBS news poll said drugs were the number-one problem facing the country. That same month, ABC released its own poll that found 80 percent of respondents believed that U.S. faced a national drug crisis. 

“Despite this hysteria, crack use was primarily isolated to just a few metropolitan areas, like Los Angles, and New York. Still, the message from the media and the White House screamed of a crack tide flooding across the shores of the U.S. Jimmie Reeves and Richard Campbell have studied this period of media bombardment, concluding that it produced a “siege paradigm” in which the drug user was “treated as an alien Other on the order of a space invader” This otherworldly invader was of course made proximate by drawing upon longstanding racial stereotypes, thus producing a “color-coded mob of dehumanized inner-city criminals [that] threaten the suburbs, small towns, schools, families, status, and authority of Middle America.”[vii]

Reagan’s declaration in 1986 that crack cocaine was an “uncontrolled fire” would be echoed by George H. W. Bush’s announcement in September of 1989 that “the gravest domestic threat facing our nation is drugs.”  That the "threat" was mostly self-imposed was left out.  Drugs in America is obviously an internal demon. But the fact that so many of those drugs were deliberately imported into the U. S. by the U.S. means the War on Drugs is like the final climatic scene from William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist


In the final scene of Blatty’s tale of demonic possession, a priest named Father Damien Karras, frustrated by the death of a fellow priest during the failed exorcism of a young girl named Regan MacNeil, attacks the girl violently while screaming at the demons inhabiting her to “Take me! Come into me! God damn you! Take me! Take me!”  The demons oblige, and Karras, who subsequently manages to wrestle temporary control of himself from the indwelling spirits, saves the girl by throwing himself out of a window.  Like Father Karras, America, frustrated by its inability to expel communist influences from places like Vietnam and Central America, opted to import heroin and cocaine into the United States. The only difference is that today, politicians boast of their moral superiority, not for their ability to exorcise the demon of drug addiction, but for their willingness to demonize those who suffer from such an addiction before gladly throwing them all out a window to win an election.




[i] The War on Drugs in The PID and the Global Economy by Linda Evans and Eve Goldberg. Pg. 10
[ii] http://www.drugpolicy.org/new-solutions-drug-policy/brief-history-drug-war
[iii] Id.
[iv] The War on Drugs in The PID and the Global Economy by Linda Evans and Eve Goldberg. Pg. 10
[v] http://healthland.time.com/2012/03/27/did-marijuana-use-sentence-trayvon-martin-to-death/
[vi] Id.
[vii] Pg 90 of Challenging the PIC  by Stephen Jon Harnett. Chap 3 and Daniel Mark Larson

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