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Rebecca Solnit: One Big Continent of Pain

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It shouldn't surprise you that Illegal Drugs R' Us.  In fact, nearly 9% of this country's population above the age of 12 uses them -- more than 22 million people, according to the government's 2010 National Survey on Drug Use and Health.  Nor should it surprise you that the business behind such use is booming on one side of the U.S. border and blowing remarkable numbers of heads off to get its product to market on the other.  After all, what businessman, assured that his venture would have a guaranteed 9% market in the U.S. (and that, in the future, those numbers would only rise) wouldn't be eager to plunge in?    

The nightmare of those dead bodies south of the border and the deadheads north of it is a "problem" that is quickly being militarized as the U.S. employs its experiences in places like Iraq and Afghanistan (still the heroin poppy capital of the world, by the way) to go after the drug trade in Central America and Mexico, drones soaring and guns blasting (only adding to the pyramid of bodies along the way).  You might think that the same old militarized same old that had been such a dismal failure in the Greater Middle East might give way to a little new thinking when it came to our "war" on drugs.  But not in Washington.  Not these days.

Fortunately, every now and then TomDispatch regular Rebecca Solnit has the urge to write a letter to someone, alive or dead -- or in this case, the living, the barely living, and the dead -- to offer new ways of thinking about our world, including today about the drug horror show that the Americas have become.  Too bad our government doesn't call a truce in that "war" for 24 hours, just to give a little new thought to how to proceed.  If it won't, the rest of us still should. Tom

Apologies to Mexico:
The Drug Trade and GNP (Gross National Pain)

By Rebecca Solnit

Dear Mexico,

I apologize. There are so many things I could apologize for, from the way the U.S. biotech corporation Monsanto has contaminated your corn to the way Arizona and Alabama are persecuting your citizens, but right now I'd like to apologize for the drug war, the 10,000 waking nightmares that make the news and the rest that don't.

You've heard the stories about the five severed heads rolled onto the floor of a Michoacan nightclub in 2006, the 300 bodies dissolved in acid by a servant of one drug lord, the 49 mutilated bodies found in plastic bags by the side of the road in Monterrey in May, the nine bodies found hanging from an overpass in Nuevo Laredo just last month, the Zeta Cartel's videotaped beheadings just two weeks ago, the carnage that has taken tens of thousands of Mexican lives in the last decade and has terrorized a whole nation.  I've read them and so many more.  I am sorry 50,000 times over.

The drug war is fueled by many things, and maybe the worst drug of all is money, to which so many are so addicted that they can never get enough. It's a drug for which they will kill, destroying communities and ecologies, even societies, whether for the sake of making drones, Wall Street profits, or massive heroin sales. Then there are the actual drugs, to which so many others turn for numbness.

There is variety in the range of drugs.  I know that marijuana mostly just makes you like patio furniture, while heroin renders you ethereally indifferent and a little reptilian, and cocaine pumps you up with your own imaginary fabulousness before throwing you down into your own trashiness. And then there's meth, which seems to have the same general effect as rabies, except that the victims crave it desperately.

Whatever their differences, these drugs, when used consistently, constantly, destructively, are all anesthesia from pain. The Mexican drug cartels crave money, but they make that money from the way Yankees across the border crave numbness. They sell unfeeling. We buy it. We spend tens of billions of dollars a year doing so, and by some estimates about a third to a half of that money goes back to Mexico .

The Price of Numbness

We want not to feel what's happening to us, and then we do stuff that makes worse things happen -- to us and others. We pay for it, too, in a million ways, from outright drug-overdose deaths (which now exceed traffic fatalities, and of which the United States has the highest rate of any nation except tiny Iceland, amounting to more than 37,000 deaths here in 2009 alone) to the violence of drug-dealing on the street, the violence of people on some of those drugs, and the violence inflicted on children who are neglected, abandoned, and abused because of them -- and that's just for starters.  The stuff people do for money when they're desperate for drugs generates more violence and more crazy greed for the money to buy the next round. And drug use is connected to the spread of HIV and various strains of hepatitis.

Then there's our futile "war on drugs" that has created so much pain of its own. It's done so by locking up mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters and children for insanely long prison sentences and offering no treatment. It does so by costing so much it's warping the economies of states that have huge numbers of nonviolent offenders in prison and not enough money for education or healthcare. It does so by branding as felons and pariahs those who have done time in the drug-war prison complex. It was always aimed most directly at African-Americans, and the toll it's taken would require a week of telling.

No border divides the pain caused by drugs from the pain brought about in Latin America by the drug business and the narcotraficantes.  It's one big continent of pain -- and in the last several years the narcos have begun selling drugs in earnest in their own countries, creating new cultures of addiction and misery.  (And yes, Mexico, your extravagantly corrupt government, military, and police have everything to do with the drug war now, but file that under greed, as usual, about which your pretty new president is unlikely to do anything much.)

Imagine that the demand ceased tomorrow; the profitable business of supply would have to wither away as well. Many talk about legalizing drugs, and there's something to be said for changing the economic arrangements. But what about reducing their use by developing and promoting more interesting and productive ways of dealing with suffering? Or even getting directly at the causes of that suffering?

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)

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