This first appeared on Instead of a Blog, on September 17, 2002, at this address:

American Terrorism:
Where’s the War on That?

Wirkman Virkkala

American society is riddled with terror. This terror is perpetrated by a cabal of men and women devoted to a set of ideas that cuts across standard ideological lines. This cabal of powerful leaders directs the full force of their anger and hate against a subset of Americans, and to the bulk of these Americans they give no quarter. The targets are hounded, harassed on the streets, shot in their homes, locked in hellholes, and their names put on lists to be printed in newspapers so that their neighbors can revile them.

Though extravagant violence is wreaked against them, these victims of terror can hardly be said to provoke it. They are themselves no more prone to violence or criminality than the average person, except that, being persecuted, they come to value law-abiding behavior less than their neighbors (if more, perhaps, than certain corporate accountants and CEO’s). This is a simple process, for the terror directed against them has the full force of law. Yes, it is legal. All the best people in the highest places of American power say they want this terrorism to continue.

Except, of course, when one of their family members or close friends steps into the category of the persecutable. Then the terrorists make exceptions. They don’t kill or maim or consign to the gaol their own.

This hypocrisy is what exercises many critics of American terror. Right now there’s a famous case of a terrorist whose daughter somehow found herself on the wrong side of the great divide that separates one American from another. The terrorist — a fine, upstanding gentleman by American standards — not unreasonably has conspired to save his daughter from the onslaught of persecution that he would otherwise inflict on anyone else who did precisely what she did. Predictably, numerous critics of American terrorism are outraged.

I confess barely to being able to work up outrage. I’ve opposed this reign of terror so long, and to so little effect, that the mere news of one person escaping the full force of the terror gives me some relief. But with so many people dead and so many people enslaved by this American terror, I have trouble working up outrage over charitable hypocrisy. The outrage I still reserve to the terror itself.

Of course, I’m speaking of America’s war on drugs. It is a war with a long history in America. It reached its first fiery peak during the Prohibition, when the drug was alcohol and the persecuted were drinkers of beer, wine, and spirits. The rule of law barely survived this war against alcohol; police and the courts became corrupt to extravagant degrees, and the percentage of alcohol abusers seems to have grown, not lessened. After the disaster of Prohibition became clear to all but the most committed terrorists, the war on drugs shifted gears, back towards harder drugs such as opium and cocaine, as well as obviously softer drugs such as marijuana. Within a few decades of Prohibition’s end, American terrorism had eclipsed the evil of Prohibition and become a permanent war against a sub-class of the American people, showing less mercy than before, and more sheer hate and fear and … hypocrisy.

Among critics of this terrorism, it has become de rigueur to call it insane. The insane war on drugs: Arianna Huffington uses the term, as did Harry Browne before her. I have trouble with this word. The war on drugs is not insane. It is evil. There is a logic to it that belies the charge of insanity. If this be madness, the method is clear. For the persecutors of the terror, it performs the all-too-human (if not humane) function of aligning humanity up into brittle categories while making the persecutors feel righteous in the course of behaving inhumanely.

This fits a deep need in the human soul. It is a dominant feature of another form of terrorism that right now obsesses Americans: the terror directed against them by certain frustrated Muslims. There are few more heady rites than the inflicting of suffering on others while feeling righteous.

Human beings are social animals; we largely crave society. But let’s not pretend that this propensity is a wholly benevolent instinct. It is not. The ties of society are often kept strongest when people align themselves into groups and war against others. In-group love gains at the cost of out-group hate.

And this is surely one of the most enduring elements of the American war against drug users. (I now cease using the euphemism war against drugs, for it is not a war against things, it is a war against people who use things.) It feeds off of the need to hurt others to make us feel good about ourselves, to feel good about our perhaps-alarmingly-loose social ties.

Sure, drug use is dangerous. Sure, for many people, it leads to imbalance, and thus vice and degradation and even death.

But to those who are already imbalanced, psychoactive drug use sometimes provides a means to return to balance. That’s why doctors regularly prescribe many drugs that other people abuse. The American federal government — the chief agent of terror against drug users — errs when it sets up its schedules of good and bad drugs. Drugs are not good or bad out of context to the uses to which they are put. The question always should be balance.

And to people who find themselves dangerously out of balance, surely the most humane way to deal with them is to remind them, and ourselves, of the criterion of judgment regarding acceptability of drug usage: what counts is not what you take, but what the effects are of taking it.

Thus the war on psychoactive drug users, by concentrating on a schedule of prohibited drugs, rather than on behavior and temperament, scuttles public debate away from reasonable criteria and towards perverse criteria. (This is most clear when sick and dying people use marijuana for medicinal purposes — to regain some balance and avoid deadly bouts of nausea — and the federal government steps in against state law and drags away the sick and the dying in chains. This is so perverse that I have to wonder how any decent person wards off the horror that I feel when I contemplate this enormity.)

And the war on drug use thus becomes not insane but imbalanced, vicious, evil.

I see no justification for it. And for the current prosecutors I have only contempt. The Bushes, a family of chronic drug abusers, have escalated the terrorism against their own kind. The best that can be said for them is that they make exceptions for their kind among their own family. The worst that can be said for them is that they have embraced America’s greatest evil and they do so with a sense of glory.

They are no better than the terrorists in Islamic lands whom they now fight.

George W. Bush, John Ashcroft, Jeb Bush; these are just a few names on a very long list. But they share a common cause, and in so doing they have embraced an all-to-common evil.

Yes, these men remain America’s biggest terrorist threat. More Americans have died in the War on Drug Users than have died by the hands of Islamic fundamentalists.

I might feel better about stepping up Bush’s war against Islam if I did not feel that the continuing terrorist campaign against Americans by the American government were not in itself a comparable evil.