David Borden, Executive Director, [email protected], 9/7/01
Late last month, in its annual convention held in Albuquerque, the organization Veterans for Peace passed a resolution condemning the "war on drugs." The resolution called the drug war "militaristic, punitive and brutal" and decried "an unacceptable level of collateral damage" being wrought upon our society and others around the globe.
I found this confluence of the peace and drug policy reform movements evocative of another war, from another time, and another organization of veterans who stood up as loyal opposition to call for an end to it: Vietnam Veterans Against the War, and a prominent leader of that organization, the young John Kerry.
In a stirring, now famous speech before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations in 1971, Kerry described crimes and lies committed in the name of the war, and protested a climate of intolerance to debate, saying "[n]ow we are told that the men who fought there must watch quietly while American lives are lost."
Kerry had his chance to speak, forever woven in the tapestry of events that made up that chapter of our nation's history. Yet youthful idealism can be hard to sustain, and Washington sometimes induces a moral amnesia. In 1994, an older John Kerry, now a powerful member of the same committee he had addressed years before as an activist, used his office to try to silence the voice of another veteran turned peacemaker from a different war.
That veteran was Gustavo de Greiff, Prosecutor General of Colombia, and the war was the drug war. De Greiff had coordinated the pursuit of Pablo Escobar, the murderous drug lord who had assassinated officials in the hundreds and terrorized a nation. Escobar was killed in the operation, but so were many others on both sides. De Greiff understood that all their efforts, all their lost lives, would ultimately merely elevate one cartel over another, bringing about no long term reduction in the availability of drugs in the US or anywhere, no solution to drug abuse, no progress toward victory in the war on drugs. Violence and corruption were the fruits of drug prohibition, and de Greiff decided, as he put it, to "trumpet" the cause of legalization at every opportunity.
One of those opportunities was a conference in Washington, DC, hosted by the Drug Policy Foundation, and another was the editorial page of the Washington Post. That earned him John Kerry's ire, and the Senator, along with officials in the State and Justice departments, leveled vicious criticisms at him and made veiled threats that the nation of Colombia itself would suffer if he continued to speak out in this manner. In May of that year, responding to an invitation from the Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts to give the keynote address at a conference at Harvard Law School, de Greiff wrote back, saying:
"I was ready to accept your invitation, but recent actions of the Department of Justice as well as Senator Kerry accusing me of false attitudes and actions, together with the fear of the Colombian government of retaliations against Colombia, by the U.S. government... have convinced me that I could cause serious problems to my country, so, deeply regretting it, I have decided not to accept it. It is regrettable that the government of a country where civil liberties were literally born assumes the attitudes it has taken concerning myself."
Three years later, Kerry the one-time peacemaker published a book, "The New War: The Web of Crime That Threatens America's Security," describing international criminal enterprises in some detail and calling for increased curtailments of civil liberties, including the exportation of America's asset forfeiture practices -- serious concerns over which have been raised on both sides of the Congressional aisle both before and since.
I found it ironic that a man whose career had been launched through a struggle for peace, had now aligned himself so closely with what he himself described as a "war." Not that some valid rationale for the seeming contradiction couldn't exist -- sometimes it only takes one side to start a war, after all, and much of the criminal activity described in Kerry's book is legitimately threatening. But such a reason can only truly apply if there are no better ways to address a situation. And there clearly are better ways, but ways which the Senator apparently doesn't wish to see debated.
At a talk in a Washington, DC bookstore, Kerry discussed the vast profits that such organizations garner, particularly from the drug trade. I attended the talk, asked him what his estimate was of how much money organized crime derives each year from illegal drugs, pointed out that these vast profits exist, and enrich international criminals -- potentially financing terrorism and other threatening activities -- because of, and only because of, drug prohibition. Therefore, I asked, shouldn't we consider legalization of drugs, in order to stop the vast flow to organized crime of hundreds of billions of dollars each year and all the terrible, frightening consequences that flow from this?
It didn't take Kerry long to come up with his answer -- "no" -- after which he launched into a nice sounding, but essentially meaningless oration about kids and prevention programs and safeguarding our communities and families from the harms of substance abuse. A portion of the audience, perhaps "groupies" or other such enthusiasts, broke into applause. At least some others, though, were more critical, and one member of the audience came up to me afterwards and pointed out that the Senator hadn't answered my question.
Of course he hadn't! And an important question it was. As the Veterans for Peace resolution pointed out, the consequences of the drug war are numerous and serious: "the dissolution of families, the neglect of children, joblessness, crimes of violence, 'historic levels' of official corruption... the callous disregard for life and family and children, and the indefensible squandering of enormous resources of the people of the United States, all of which permeates these policies and their application."
And so, when a one-time peacemaker avoids answering an important question, to justify the escalation of a "new war" in which he has become embroiled, I can only ponder: How soon, immersed in politics and power, can we forget that for which we once stood. How varied and compelling the temptations to war, how awful the consequences to the casualties and the souls of the warriors themselves.
And how long until we, as a nation and as a world, remember the lessons of the past?