Drug Wars: Stop Gunning for the Symptoms. Start Shooting for the Cure.

“One river, one nation,” we used to say during my childhood on the border. Well today, my country is falling apart. It’s dying. Blood has been running in the streets for years. But now – with Secretary Clinton’s trip to Mexico, President Obama’s impending visit, Mexican troops massing on our borders, and dead bodies piling up on both sides of the Rio Grande – this Drug War is getting more buzz than our megabillion dollar wars overseas. So what’s the real problem? Is it the drugs? Is it the guns? And do you ever wonder why no one seems to tie any of it back to the waves of immigrants washing over our borders? While the guns, violence and sexiness of it all have lured Anderson Cooper and others to the seedy, shadowy corners of places like Juarez, Tijuana and Nuevo Laredo to shine their lights on this dark pornography of the human soul, far less sexy and news-hole friendly issues drive this human tragedy. But they are challenges that must be faced if a lasting solution – rather than simply a passing diversion – is ever to be found.

Remember when we waged a War on Drugs? That War was supposed to not only hit the cartels that brought in the Supply. It was also supposed to attack the other source of the problem: the Demand. What happened? After all, if our culture were not so drug-obsessed, the destructive filth these ruthless criminals peddle would find no harbor near our homes. But it seems that War was long ago forgotten. Perhaps it was too difficult to wage. Perhaps the disintegration of the American family unit, the decay of our educational system, and our youth’s growing sense of futility leading to escapism at any cost were too harsh, too mind-numbing, too complex and too unpopular to tackle. So instead our attention was diverted, from the Gulf of Mexico to the Persian Gulf. When I studied International Relations at Harvard, I learned Rule #1 of politicians facing trouble at home has always been to divert attention outwards. Could the new Administration be playing the same game now? Trouble at home? Us? No, surely the foreigners are to blame. Saddam Hussein. WMD. Islamic terrorists. Afghans. Mexican Drug Cartels. Everyone. Anyone. But us. Let’s just pop a national Ambien/Xanax cocktail and go back to sleeping at the wheel.

So if not blame ourselves for the Drug War that’s raged on our border for decades, then why not guns? That’s the hot topic as anti-gun and pro-gun lobbies debate whether lax gun laws are to blame for the escalating violence.

Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and Paul Helmke of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, write:

This crisis is not happening because our border is loose. It is happening because our gun laws allow guns to be sold by unlicensed sellers without background checks required by the Brady Bill, military-style assault weapons to be freely sold and corrupt gun dealers to thrive.

Wayne LaPierre of the National Rifle Association fires back:

Everything Mexico’s murderous thugs are doing is already illegal. At issue is not the absence of law, but the absence of political will to enforce the laws that both nations already possess.

As tragically confused as the border I grew up in, they are both right and they are both wrong. Kennedy Townsend is correct that the border’s porous nature is not to blame. But she’s wrong to decry easy gun sales as the cause of the violence. Just because you can buy a gun doesn’t make you want to kill people.

Wayne La Pierre is right that if these evildoers couldn’t get the guns in a store or gun show in Texas, they’d get them somewhere else. He’s also on target in saying that the problem is not an absence of law. But he’s terribly naïve in opining that the solution is finding the political will to enforce existing binational laws.

What they both don’t get is that at its murky depths this heinous crisis ripping our nations apart at the seams is not about broken laws; it’s about broken cultures. It’s about something way deeper than both the law and the Rio Grande that divides our systems of justice. It’s about what drives young Americans to throw away their futures and seek out drugs despite their self-destructive power. It’s about what compels young Mexicans to jettison their values and join the drug trade. It’s not about absence of law, but it is about absence of better things to do with their lives. It’s not about lack of political will, but it is about lack of meaning, purpose and legitimate opportunity in these people’s lives.

I grew up on that border that now draws so much attention with buzz over building walls, gory beheadings, and violence spilling over into sleepy American neighborhoods. I almost drowned in its desperation right on the shores of the Rio. And I’m haunted every day as I see Mexico dying from a new manifestation of the same disease that has been killing it since the day it won independence from Spain and then started having pieces of itself chopped off and consumed by its ambitious neighbor to the north. Mexico is trapped in a culturally engrained system of impenetrable social stratification and personal economic paralysis. It is nearly impossible for a person to rise up from poverty or family anonymity to wealth and fame through legitimate means. So those with desire and any shred of imagination are left with two viable options: leave the country (hence the immigration problem) or join the drug cartels. It’s the only way to grow out of the circumstances into which people are born. Imagine that. And here in America, our youth – trapped as well – seek the only escapes they can find and afford: video games, mobile technology, the internet, music, sex and, of course…drugs. We’re all mired in shallow ground. Who’s going to throw us all a communal rope so we can climb back onto the banks?

In the end, arguing about laws, border security and military crackdowns is not going to end the Drug War or the problems that cause it. That’s like arguing over what size or color of Band-Aid to put on a broken heart. What we need to talk about, work on, and figure out – both as autonomous nations and as symbiotic neighbors – is how to mend our inner selves as “a people.” It’s harder and not nearly as sexy as showing pictures of federales battling machine gun-toting killers in a Robert Rodriguez/Quentin Tarantino-esque hyper-reality that has become the evening news. But it is only through the inglorious, surgical labor of cultural introspection, rehabilitation, and evolution on both sides of the border that the bleeding wound we both share – the carved deep wound I crossed every day as a child – will ever heal.