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From Abu Ghraib to Your Local Prison

The myth of liberation in Iraq has been replaced with a less photogenic reality – one that looks a lot like the war on drugs.
 
 
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Imagine if George Bush and Donald Rumsfeld had been honest early last year. "We believe Saddam Hussein is a threat. We will topple him, killing or imprisoning tens of thousands of Iraqi soldiers and 'accidentally' killing thousands of civilians. As in any war, in the hellish chaos we create, both sides will engage in 'perverse' behavior, sometimes including rape and torture. Many of your sons and daughters (not ours) will die carrying out our orders. We will claim their victories as our own and deny responsibility for any misdeeds they commit. If you question our wisdom, we will question your patriotism."

Instead, the president and defense secretary promoted the grand, national lie of the clean war. Simple story line. Good guys against evildoers. No messy corpses, no moral ambiguity and certainly no G.I.s torturing anyone.

No wonder so many Americans are both outraged and stunned at the prisoner abuse scandal. They were promised a clean war, but the photos from Abu Ghraib show real war in sickening detail.

The myth of liberation in Iraq has been replaced with a less photogenic reality – an autocratic bureaucracy responsible for punishment and population control. If this were happening here at home, we might mistake it for the war on drugs.

Imagine if the architects of the modern drug war had honestly predicted the future thirty years ago. "Certain drugs are a threat. To 'serve and protect' you, we will arrest millions of you. By 2004, we will keep roughly half a million of you behind bars at any given time. As in any campaign of mass incarceration, in the hellish chaos we create, we will see 'perverse' side effects, including overflowing prisons rife with rape and violence, millions of families destroyed, and massive racial disparities in enforcement. Our bureaucracy will grow richer and more powerful, even as drugs grow cheaper and more plentiful. If you question our budgets we will question your morality by calling you 'pro-drug.'"

Instead of telling these truths as they unfolded, presidents and drug czars have spent thirty years spouting the grand, national lie of a 'drug free America' – another simple, clean story line with easy morals. Good guys and evildoers.

In the last ten years, the public has begun to take notice of the "Abu Ghraibs" of the domestic war on drugs. We've seen lives shattered by lengthy mandatory minimum sentences for low level offenses; cancer patients denied their pain medication, marijuana, by federal agents with machine guns; thousands of AIDS casualties who contracted the virus from a dirty needle while the federal government shamefully blocked funding for needle exchange; and innocent African American and Latino children searched at gunpoint because the drug war so often determines its targets on the basis of skin color.

The drug war bureaucrats in Washington have seldom responded to these revelations by accepting their responsibility for failure. Instead of substantive policy changes, they craft new stories, deflecting attention away from the quagmire they direct from the safety of their desks. Most of the public won't buy their old get-tough talk about locking up filthy drug users and throwing away the key, so overt demonization is out. Mock-compassion is in. Now the drug czar speaks reassuringly of a "balanced approach" in which drug treatment and law enforcement work together as a healing duo. The hapless victims of drug addiction, the new story goes, just need a little tough love when their disease, addiction, stubbornly refuses to get better.

What the tough-love fiction intentionally obscures, of course, is that the drug war is more brutal, more harmful to public health and more reliant on incarceration than ever. The rhetoric may now evoke images of cops and doctors hand in hand, but locking a human being in a cage just for a nonviolent drug offense still isn't compassionate and it's not drug treatment. Prison is a messy and violent (though profitable) business, as we saw in extreme form in Abu Ghraib.

It's time to stop silencing critics with charges of treason. And it's time for a moratorium on phony stories. In the case of Iraq, forget the evildoers and spiderholes. Ask whether war – with its systematic killing, civilian deaths and inevitable perversions – was the necessary response to the threat posed by Saddam Hussein. Perhaps most Americans would answer with a solemn "yes." Perhaps not.

In the case of drugs, a similar question is now thirty years overdue. Is the establishment of a permanent incarceration-bureaucracy – with its 500,000 caged people, shattered families and strained economies, and inevitable perversions of justice – the appropriate way to regulate substances in our communities? Jack Nicholson's infamous character in A Few Good Men was wrong. The American public may be revolted by the truth, but they can handle it. Can the government?

Matthew Briggs is director of research and publications at the Drug Policy Alliance .