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Posts Tagged ‘prohibition’

Last night, I re-watched The Untouchables, the 1987 action/crime drama about Eliot Ness and his handpicked police team who brought down Al Capone and his bootlegger gang. It’s a well-made and fast-paced movie, with good performances by Sean Connery, Kevin Costner and Robert de Niro. I had watched it in college a good 7 years back and remember liking it quite a bit.

But last night, I couldn’t get myself to enjoy it much.

To enjoy a movie like this, you have to root for the good guys, in this case the cops. But the cops are enforcing the prohibition law. It is impossible for me to forget that.

A case can be made, and indeed is made in the movie, that the cops are just doing their duty. They are not responsible for the framing of laws, good or bad. Yet we rightly condemn not just Hitler and the other top Nazis, but also those smaller agents who actually implemented the acts of incredible evil conceived or masterminded by the former. (At what point does moral culpability extend from the planners to the executors? When, despite the fact that you are just doing your sworn duty, can you no longer escape responsibility? These are interesting moral questions I have no comprehensive answers to.)

The prohibition law was not just a bad law. It was an evil law. It criminalized an acitivity that violates no one’s rights and gives a lot of people pleasure. It inevitably led to a vast underground trade in illicit liquor. The result was violence and death. When people were not dying at the hands of the cops or the liquor gangs, they were dying as a result of poisoning. To prevent bootleggers from using industrial ethyl alcohol to produce illegal beverages, the government ordered the poisoning of industrial alcohols. In response, bootleggers hired chemists who successfully renatured the alcohol to make it drinkable. The government ordered th poisoning of alcohol through more deadly means. As many as 10,000 people died from drinking denatured alcohol before Prohibition ended.

I see the raids by Ness on liquor manufacturers and I see an oppressive state violating the rights of its citizens. I see the deaths in the movie and I do not blame Capone; I blame the government. The government is the aggressor here, the initiator of the cycle of violence; Capone is merely giving people what they want. I see Ness killing a bad guy and avenging the murder of his dead partner, and I do not feel satisfaction; I cringe at this instance of abuse of power. And through it all, I think of modern times, where there are about a hundred raids every day as part of the war on drugs, a foolish, evil, violent policy that accounts for more lives lost or destroyed every year than abuse of drugs can ever achieve.

And I cannot forget it all just because it is a movie. Even though Ness and his crew are portrayed as hardworking honest cops, I cannot in my heart ignore that the law they are upholding is a terrible one. I guess that’s the main difference between the person I was then and am now. I know more and I cannot shut it off as easily.

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Tomorrow is the 75th anniversary of Repeal day, the day the United States repealed one of the most foolish and disastrous laws ever conceived, prohibition.

Read this excellent article by Radley Balko where he discusses the lessons to be learnt from that era, and why modern America’s war on drugs is every bit as foolish and futile.

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“The prestige of government has undoubtedly been lowered considerably by the prohibition law; for nothing is more destructive of respect for the government and the law of the land than passing laws which cannot be enforced.”

Albert Einstein, on prohibition in the US.

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Radley Balko points out the moral and intellectual bankruptcy of the war on drugs:

We’re told that drug war is a moral imperative because, in the words of Walters himself, “dangerous drugs damage [children’s] lives and limit their futures.”  But like most temperance zealots, Walters measures success not by actual lives wrecked or ended prematurely, but merely by how many people are and aren’t getting high.

Switching from the “drugs ruin lives” justification for the drug war itself to “how many people are getting high” when measuring the same drug war’s effectiveness, then, hides a more important statistic:  How many people have had their lives ruined and futures limited by the drug war?  The vast majority of the 873,000 people arrested for marijuana offenses last year, for example, likely had more damage done to their lives by the prohibition of marijuana than could ever be done by the drug itself.

Such is why drug warriors like William Bennett, Karen Tandy, and Walters can assert with a straight face that alcohol prohibition was, also, a “success.” Sure, the crime rate spiked, alcohol hospitalizations soared, and corruption and contempt for the rule of law was rampant.  But fewer people swallowed down less demon rum.  So, score one for social engineering.

Sure, deaths from drug overdose have jumped 70 percent, and more than doubled among young people.  But fewer people are smoking pot.  And that means we’re winning.

As they say, if you repeat a lie enough times, it becomes true. Bennett, Tandy and Walters are proof of that.

But surely then, if you repeat a truth enough times, as Radley, I and so many other try to do, it should make people listen as well? Isn’t that the least that fairness owes us?

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After successfully combating the menace of smoking, he is now on a mission to eradicate the other great vice — alcohol.

Sometimes I wonder where we Indians would be without Ramadoss. It is abundantly clear now that we are simply incapable of taking good decisions for ourselves. We masturbate, smoke, drink, maintain poor personal hygiene and consistently elect the wrong politicians. Without his fatherly protection and control, we would soon become a bunch of wastrels.

There is only one thing I fear — what if Ramadoss gets tired of his mission and stops taking care of us? What will we do? Who will we turn to?

But, in my heart of hearts, I know he will never stop. His conscience will prevent him from doing so.

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All evidence points to the fact that everyone would be better off if drugs were legalized. So what makes the war on drugs go on? In this excellent article, Radley Balko glimpses into the mind of a drug warrior.

We’re told that certain drugs have to be prohibited because they’re too dangerous. But we should also resist efforts to make them less dangerous because doing so might encourage drug use.

It’s a bizarre argument until you consider the real motivation behind it: In truth, it’s not so much about the harm some drugs do; it’s about an absolute moral opposition to the use of some drugs.

Even if they were completely harmless, some people simply don’t like the idea that we can ingest chemicals that make us feel good.

And of course, this moral opposition translates into coercive laws. It always does.

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