Unmasking the Drug-Terror Link

The United States is in the midst of two wars. Both enemies are elusive, and end games are hard to discern. What better way to ease the doubts and anxieties implicit in these wars than to merge them. And what better time than the premier showcase of American popular culture, the Super Bowl. With two ads in last month’s Super Bowl, the Bush Administration commenced a campaign to convince us that the purchase of illegal drugs was more than an act of personal irresponsibility. As one of the ads put it: “Where do terrorists get their money? If you buy drugs, it might come from you."

An Administration so intent on making the connection between drugs and terrorism has been remarkably reticent about providing evidence of this connection. Are all illegal drugs implicated? Much of the marijuana smoked in Maine is also home grown. Unless Maine citizens are Al Qaeda members, it is hard to see how these purchases reach terrorists.

If the Bush Administration were truly interested in the economic foundation of recent Middle Eastern terrorism, Saudi Arabia would be a better target. And surely some of the Saudi millions channeled into terrorism derive from this nation’s appetite for imported oil. Perhaps a Super Bowl ad highlighting SUV owners as supporters of terrorism might have made a fitting counter to the usual barrage of auto ads in our football telecasts.

The Bush drug ads are equally forgetful of history. Looked at from a longer perspective, many recreational drugs have become a source of black markets and pools of hidden capital. Yet as AlterNet columnist Geov Parrish points out, two aspects of this story are revealing: “From Afghanistan to Southeast Asia to Latin America, the CIA has for decades been accused (often irrefutably) of reaping huge profits from illicit drugs, money which -- as with its illegal arms sales in the '80s that went to anti-Nicaraguan contra operations -- has tended to go directly into funding our terror campaigns. If the U.S. does it, it's no surprise that al Qaeda et al would, too. The effort to eradicate certain popular drugs…. has literally created, and perpetuated, the very black market now accused of being a source of cash for al Qaeda's jihad. Ending drug prohibitions would do far more to thwart terrorism than the War on Drugs ever could.”

If the Bush Administration’s major concern were the health and security of our citizens, cleaner, more fuel- efficient vehicles and mass transit would be national priorities. In addition, studies by Rand Corporation have provided strong evidence that rehabilitation and drug education are far better ways to reduce dangerous forms of drug use than police actions and foreign interdictions.

Yet we will likely wait a long time for government ads targeting SUVs and promoting honest public health approaches to drugs. The War on Terror, just like the drug war, is at least as much about affirming the worth and sanctity of mainstream culture as it is about fostering real security. Toward that end, all who differ from the most widely celebrated values are not merely different, but evil. Recreational drugs associated with the urban poor or the counterculture are decried on the very same telecasts that sell us beer and now even hard liquor. In addition, the war on terror has morphed into a selective attack on every nation that our national security elites see as a threat to US hegemony.

Nonetheless, each of these wars has its problems. Despite two decades of drug war, success remains elusive. Some of the population has tired of the war, either because they regard it as unwinnable or because they have gained a more nuanced appreciation of the range of harms occasioned by various drugs. Years of exaggerations and scare stories have taken their toll.

For its part, the war on terror can point to shattered caves in Afghanistan, but Osama apparently remains at large. And even were we to have irrefutable proof of his demise, just how many of Al Qaeda’s hydra- like cells would remain?

Both drug and terror warriors need a powerful enemy to grease their psyche, but an enemy against which tangible progress can be made. Merging of the two concerns is a natural for both. How convenient it is to provide drug warriors and skeptics a new incentive to renew the drug wars. And the war on terror becomes both more tangible if apprehension of the drug user down the street can now be seen as crippling Osama.

Unfortunately, the merging of these wars is not without risks to the rest of us. Each war has already been an occasion for myriad threats to our civil liberties. Fusing the two poses even greater risk. In addition, these vast campaigns drain resources from more evident and pressing threats to our health and security.

John Buell is a columnist for the Bangor Daily News. He invites comments at jbuell@acadia.net.

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