Wednesday, August 11, 2004

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‘You killed my father … prepare to die’

Yesterday’s Wall Street Journal had a characteristically comprehensive and informative piece on the state of Colombia’s war against “narcoterrorism,” a plague that has left broad swathes of the country as lawless satrapies of these bloodthirsty, parasitical paramilitaries with colorful names and chimerical political allegiances that serve as a fig leaf for raw, lucrative gangsterism of the vilest variety. (No link, but this BBC profile provides plenty of nitty-gritty background.) The good news is that the thugs are on the run, thanks to the energy, intellect, daring, and courage of Colombia’s President Alvaro Uribe.

Vengeance as a value doesn’t comport with any defensible conception of political ethics, I suppose, but there’s something neatly symmetrical (and, I’m sorry to say, satisfying) about this: the FARC, an ostensibly “left-wing” guerrilla army, killed Uribe’s father in 1983, and now Uribe is killing the FARC, slowly but surely. Uribe’s campaign is wide-ranging. He doesn’t eschew negotiations, but he’s certainly not naïve; if the villains expect concessions (i.e., if they expect to be left alive), Uribe will get verifiable disarmament. Building on the work of his predecessor, and with massive amounts of American assistance, Uribe has transformed what had been a demoralized and ineffective military into a formidable, disciplined, modern force capable of taking the fight to the enemy.

So why the breathless talk about Uribe? Two things spring to mind: (a) Uribe has a comprehensive strategy, one that includes providing adequate social services for those outside of metropolitan Colombia. This is admirable, and ought to be learned from. (b) There’s something more than a little tragic about all this. “Narcoterrorism” would be toothless if we in the US could find a more sensible way of dealing with the ever-present demand for “the narco.” Leaving aside the catastrophic waste of human lives in our own country—casualties of the drug war, who’ve died or who are languishing (expensively) in prisons, number in the millions—an entire country is being terrorized by criminal empires we’ve, in an infuriatingly absent-minded, innocent enough way, fueled. The notion that our appetites can be deadly is a commonplace: if you eat senselessly (as I do), for example, there are complications, and an untimely demise is made that much more likely. Fair enough. But is it right that our appetites wreak havoc on a country most of us have never been, and where grinding poverty of a kind that’s been eliminated in even the most benighted, neglected corners of our own country is as common as it is confining? I’d say no. The heroism of Uribe, to my mind, is all the more reason for us to rethink the war on drugs. (I like to think that Bill Buckley would agree.)

I should note that I’m not hostile to “morals legislation” per se. I disagree with Robert P. George on many things, but I don’t think it’s wrong for government to regulate certain “victimless crimes” in the name of preserving a healthy moral ecology (check out the weirdly filthy cover), etc. I do, however, think we ought to take a prudential approach to these matters: are we really minimizing harms by taking X course of action? That’s the relevant question.

P.S.- I was running on a treadmill yesterday (a hilarious image, I assure you) and, after listening to “Brooklyn’s Finest,” Brooklyn's national anthem, five times, listened to the first Andrew W.K. album. It brought a tremendous, overpowering smile to my face, which, in light of the parlous state of the world and the near-constant reversals suffered by the forces of good in recent months, was really something. This might strike you as hyperbole, but I wouldn’t be surprised if AWK has, with his infectious rock rhythms, led more than a few despairing, moody, and even suicidal teens to think, “Yeah, life, for all its vexations and nettlesome encounters, the pain and the shame, is really quite nice, at least some of the time, and I’d rather stick around to see if there’s more to come. Pardon me while I headbang.” This man is a national treasure. By now, he’s forgotten. Some would dismiss him as a “novelty act.” These are, I maintain, the same people who dismissed the incandescent light bulb as “the work of the devil.” That’s pretty much all I have to say about the naysayers.

I’ll let the man speak for himself (from a May 2002 interview with The Onion A.V. Club):

I wanted to make satisfying songs that did exactly what you wanted them to do and did it again and again, and just kept paying off. That didn't punch you in the face, but instead just gave you a big, firm handshake and a hug. Instant gratification. Also, living a solitary kind of existence and having been hassled by people that I didn't feel similar to... It's very interesting, because I know a lot of people who feel left out, so the first chance they get, they want to leave someone else out and perpetuate that feeling. The people who didn't like me or didn't want me around, I always wanted to bring those people in. I wanted to make something that they would want to be part of. I wanted to make something that would make them happy about me and themselves and us. That's one of the most important things here: that nobody is turned away and nobody is left out and nobody is judged based on how they look or what they like or what they don't like or even why they like it. There's no wrong reason to like my music. There's no wrong reason to like anything. This music is freedom. It allows anyone else the freedom to do whatever they want, and it accepts that unconditionally. And it continues to just want to make you happy. All you need to know is, "Do I feel this in my stomach? Is this running through my veins? Does this go up my spine? Does this blow my mind to pieces? Does this affect me?"

You’re damn right it does.

posted by Suzanne Nossel on 08.11.04 at 03:32 PM


I have long argued that our stupid drug laws threaten the weaker democracies. Unfortunately, neither George W. Bush nor John Kerry will make this a campaign issue. Only a politician willing to damage their career will touch this issue. The Republicans will probably be first to pull off a Nixon to China. It is ironic that the more permissive Democrats are the least likely to do so.

posted by: David Thomson on 08.11.04 at 03:32 PM [permalink]


I'd be interested to read more about Uribe - any links to, say, a BBC report, or Foreign Affairs article, or somesuch?


posted by: Andrew Edwards on 08.11.04 at 03:32 PM [permalink]

You should see "Maria Full of Grace." It's a fascinating HBO drama in theaters right now. It looks at the life of a Colombian woman who works as a drug mule. I think the film would make anyone who loves coke blanch. (Or anyone who doesn't love coke, for that matter.)

posted by: Chris on 08.11.04 at 03:32 PM [permalink]

There is a shortage of perfect drugs in the world. It would be a shame to ruin one.

posted by: brett on 08.11.04 at 03:32 PM [permalink]

“You should see "Maria Full of Grace.”

Amen. This is a fantastic film. Director Joshua Marston deserves much credit for doing a great job. Only a few days ago, I even said a few nice things about “Maria Full of Grace” on the customer review board. And yes, it should enrage any sensible person that we have yet to legalize mind altering drugs. Our attitude must be that one is an idiot for ingesting these drugs---but it’s their problem and nobody else’s. We are not obligated to protect them from their own self destructive behavior.

posted by: David Thomson on 08.11.04 at 03:32 PM [permalink]

I think I've seen that "weirdly filthy" book cover before - it was part of a promotion for chocolate houses in the 18th century or so. Drinking chocolate was promoted as a healthy, moral alternative to drinking gin (popular among the poor), so the advertisement showed contrasting images of filthy gin-drinkers living in the streets and clean, morally sound chocolate-drinkers.

posted by: crane on 08.11.04 at 03:32 PM [permalink]

AWK's I Get Wet is truly a great album.

"I Love New York City" is my favorite pro-NYC song, ever.

Does anyone know if his second album, The Wolf was any good?

posted by: Eric Deamer on 08.11.04 at 03:32 PM [permalink]

If they ever give out awards for "most thematically diverse weblog post that still all somehow makes sense when taken as a whole," you and Siddharth are both going to be in the running.

From race to the merits of working out to Andrew WK in five easy steps-- my hat's off to you, Reihan.

posted by: Johno on 08.11.04 at 03:32 PM [permalink]

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