Last Thursday evening, the former mayor of Ciudad Juarez talked to a group of Amherst students about one of the innumerable gunfights that have terrorized northern Mexico and claimed 50,000 lives. Rival drug gangs shot at each other with guns so powerful that a single bullet could punch through an armored Suburban, and then exit cleanly through the other side. The U.S. government refused to weapons to the Mexican army; the drug gangs, on the other hand, drove across the border and purchased them from U.S. gun stores, as they have since the assault weapons ban lapsed in 2004 — coincidentally the same time that the violence in Mexico began to escalate.
This isn’t only a Mexican problem. The vicious circle of guns, gangs and drugs infects the United States as well. The Drug Enforcement Administration estimates that cartels have a presence in 252 American cities and the high profile shootings that have taken place over the last year just highlight the fact that gun violence in the US far outstrips any other developed nation. Recently President Obama claimed that legalization of drugs was not going to be the answer — but why shouldn’t it be, when current policy has so abjectly failed?
The ‘War on Drugs’ costs tens of billions of dollars a year and has resulted in a nation with one of the highest incarceration rates in the world — over two million Americans are behind bars. And to what end? Privatized prisons are filled to their bursting point with low level dealers and offenders, who are replaced even more quickly than they are caught. The incarcerated come out of jail more hardened, gang affiliated and far more likely to be back behind bars than gainfully employed.
Meanwhile the streets of America are riddled with bullets and bodies. School shootings, neighborhood watch shootings, and even the shooting of a member of Congress — all via legally purchased weapons — fail to engender any kind of rational response. Constitution worshipping literalists and those hung up on original intent defend to the death the right to bear the kinds of arms the Framers could not have even imagined.
None of this has to be the case — just look at some other examples. After liberalizing its drug laws, Portugal saw drug use decline among teenagers and significant declines in the street value of certain drugs. Instead of becoming a nation of stoners, only 10 percent of Portuguese smoke marijuana, far less than the 42 percent of Americans who have done so. In the Netherlands, greater focus on treatment than enforcement has led to a 30 percent reduction in heroin addicts, who have all but disappeared from Dutch streets according to a 2010 report. And every other OECD nation — all of whom have far stricter gun laws — has a lower rate of gun violence.
But like so many other things in American politics, it is impossible to have a real conversation about our failed gun laws and failed drug policy. To even suggest looking outward at the experiments undertaken in other nations and to honestly discuss and consider their observed outcomes would be for many, political suicide. It’s that way about nearly everything.
Taxes? Must never be raised. Ever. Only cut — as long as the cuts occur at the uppermost rates. Forget about trying to balance the necessary role of government with sound fiscal policy and our responsibility to work for justice and protect the most vulnerable. Healthcare? Our system is the best because the market is always perfect, and there is absolutely no need to look elsewhere at successful implementations around the world and try and pick and choose the best facets of each. Climate change? Addressing it means wrecking our economy — end of story.
I have strong ideological convictions, and I’m definitely not going to opine for some chimerical bi-partisan or post-partisan era. I certainly hold no great love for the ‘centrists’ of American politics, who, regardless of the starting positions of the two poles, believe that the correct policy is whatever is in between them — we have seen the consequences of such belief when it confronts the reality that one (already centrist) party is willing to compromise and the other (extremist) party is not. But I would be the first to admit that I have been wrong before about specific policy and I have changed my views when presented with compelling and irrefutable arguments.
Policy isn’t always everything. Sometimes it is important — no, imperative — to be willing to fight for policy. But we can get lost in fights about details and forget to even have the most basic conversation about our core values and a real vision for what our country, our generation’s country, is going to look like. It’s at this point that I’m forced to admit that I am a secret optimist. Because no matter how often American politics is infuriating, I have a hunch that a conversation among my generation over that vision for America would not be.
The media portrays us as pampered children, both irritated at our ever-present hover mothers yet unwilling to grow up. Maybe there’s some truth in that, but it isn’t the whole picture. I’m also not going to go overboard with some proclamation about how I have seen how wonderful the youth of America are and how we have the courage and integrity to deftly tackle our gravest challenges with ease. But I can’t help but be filled with hope that we are part of a generation more willing to look outward, to self-reflect and to recognize our interconnected destiny.
I’m hopeful because I think that overall, we share a vision of a more just America with respect for human dignity at its core, we are willing to make sacrifices for our planet and our peers and we have the foresight to realize that sacrifice can lead to even greater opportunity. Let’s hang on to our twinges of youthful optimism and drag this nation back to a conversation about that vision and the values that will guide us along the way. And the policy will follow.