Off the northeast coast of Africa, pirates are disrupting the commerce of the seas and demanding ransoms from corporations for the safe return of men, cargo, and ships. On the southern border of the United States, there is a quiet war being waged amongst Mexican drug cartels and against the governments of two nations, while the body count for all is climbing faster upwards. President Barack Obama has made statements in recent days pledging to help bring both of these concerns to an end.
Upon initial assessment, it is easy to see the good in standing against these scourges. We’re talking, in both cases, about innocent lives being put in danger because of illegal activity. But let’s go against the grain of the mainstream media, and fight against the listen-without-thinking-or-analyzing-or-questioning tendency of our national ignorance to dig a little deeper. Come on – I’ll hold your hand if you need me to.
Guys in boats with machine guns who take hostages are bad. That’s pretty black and white. Let me remind you, though, that our world is not. We make cartoon villains out of every enemy we’ve ever had so that the government can sell us Cliff’s Notes on The Truth. The men who have become the faceless public enemy of the moment did not wake up one day and decide to become super-villains of the seas. The people of Somalia have endured over a decade of political and economic collapse that make present-day hardships in our country look like a vain inconvenience. Their economy didn’t recess, it practically vanished, and so did their government. As substitutes, they received first-class poverty and warring factions of self-interested opportunists.
Johann Jari, reporting for the San Francisco Bay Review in February, found that the “pirates” are not the bad guys in their own estimation. In fact, they feel just the opposite. They call themselves the Volunteer Coast Guard of Somalia. What exactly are they guarding against? Foreign criminals that have taken advantage of Somalia’s volatile political situation. Corporations that rob Somalian waters of seafood that they once would have had to buy, and dump waste – nuclear waste – into the waters off the Somalian coast free of cost or consequence. Those guys in boats with machine guns who take hostages are doing it to stop the environmental abuses poisoning their people, and to collect money in lieu of the cash that would have been legally and fairly traded if the pirates had been able to remain fishermen.
Now, what if those young men in Somalia struggling with poverty and witnessing the poisoning of their families had another way to rise above their circumstances? What if they could farm, with little investment necessary at the beginning, and turn their crops into profit? Wouldn’t that be preferable to piracy? Well, that is the choice made by some Mexicans who have found that they can break the perpetual poverty their families have experienced for several generations. They grow drugs, or buy them from growers, at very low prices. They can then sell the cultivated and prepared drugs to American users at remarkable profit. It seems to me that they have sat outside our nation and looked through the window at capitalism, and learned it well. The men who make up the drug cartels did not go into that work because of a desire to peddle poison, or a lust for blood. They did it to make more money than they could have ever hoped to do otherwise.
I’m not naive enough to think that every pirate on the high seas nor every Escobar-in-the-making is a good-at-heart victim of circumstance that might be town mayor if the reality of their economy was just a little different. I do think that people by nature would rather build than destroy, and that most would rather contribute to their world than live as a parasite on its skin. As much as our governments, our police, and (let’s face it) our wealthy corporate puppet-masters want us to believe these people are monsters, they are essentially poor people just hoping to have a life comparable to the one they see us living. Point at their guns and call them evil. But if you tell me that you’ve never compromised your principles to get more than you otherwise would have, I will look upon you with a skeptical eye. How far would you have to be pushed, how far into poverty would you have to slip, how many of your kids or parents or siblings would you watch starve or suffer before you were willing to go to work with a gun in your hand?
The War on Drugs is a failure, yet we continue to escalate that war. For 40 years we have thrown money and effort at the effects of a problem without trying hard enough to find the cause of the problem. We don’t have a problem because drugs exist, or because they’re easy to get, or because drug dealers are greedy. We have a problem because people want them, and making their acquisition illegal creates a dangerous trade environment. People aren’t going to stop wanting drugs. Know why? Because we’ve already agreed that sense-altering, potentially dangerous substances are fun and sexy. They’re called liquor and tobacco. You’ve seen the ads.
Here is an illustration of where the War on Drugs has gotten us. A week after Obama’s visit to Mexico, I listened to a report on NPR about a girl who was strip-searched at the direction of her middle-school assistant principle in an attempt to discover unauthorized substances. The event happened in 2003. The girl was 13. Let me repeat for emphasis that a 13-year-old girl was strip-searched at her school for drugs. What was the supposedly just cause? Another student was found with drugs and claimed to have gotten them from this girl. Now do you think it was justified? How about when I tell you the drug in question was nothing but one 400mg ibuprofen? This case went before the Supreme Court just days ago, with the school continuing to claim that this search was acceptable. After all, the school has a zero-tolerance policy on drugs.
On the other side of the world, what do we have to show for our military actions against Somalian pirates? We have one guy, one corporate employee (whose life was probably never truly in danger from those pirates) being hailed as a hero for reasons that I don’t buy. We have one teenage boy being brought to a circus trial in the United States for actions that, while wrong and misguided, I believe to be defensible. We have three young men, probably also teenagers, dead at the hands of American snipers because they took drastic action when no other acceptable action was available to them. We still have hundreds of sailors being held hostage by pirates, not harmed, and being treated well by most accounts. And we still have Somalia, ungoverned and unprotected, producing more lawless men as long as there is no law to help them.
The connecting thread of these two concerns is that we tend to apply heavy-handed and poorly-reasoned measures to problems that require finesse and consideration. President Obama seems to be making the mistakes of all those who went before him by acting on the symptom and not the sickness. A lot of us expect more from him than that. The key to combating the pirates is not to start the War on Pirates – that’s the Bush way. The key is to help the people of Somalia establish a legitimate government that protects the interests of the populace, and to help stop foreign interests from looting Somalia’s resources. If you do that, there is no longer any appeal in becoming a pirate. The “pirates” are just men who want money, and if able to earn a reasonable amount in a fair and legal way, are likely to do so. The same goes for drug dealers. Legalize drugs and you remove the violence of the trade. You stop putting people in jail and turning them into ex-cons upon release. You also improve economies by legalizing an industry that has operated unregulated and untaxed. Then, educate, as we have shown to be effective in controlling alcohol and tobacco use. Create a commercial industry and men will put down guns to pick up a suit and tie.
There was another war that we started just a couple of years before Nixon created the War on Drugs. It was called the War on Poverty. You don’t hear much about it. It’s hard to turn it into a sexy summer movie. But maybe if we had spent more time and effort on that one, both wars would be history.