The War on Drugs

from The Corner (1997) (pp. 474-79) by David Simon and Edward Burns


This war goes on.


Thirty years down this sad stretch of road and the same people are still peddling the same brand of snake oil, still hawking that elusive light at the tunnel's end.


There's nothing wrong with the war on drugs that can't be perfected, they'll tell you. Nothing that can't succeed with just a little fine-tuning and a little more money. More cops and more prisons and some new laws and we'll really start to get at the sources of supply, or attack the demand, or maybe do both at once. Democrats, Republicans, it doesn't  matter who's running for office-- they'll all promise to  get  hard  with  it,  to  get  things back under control, to spend the money  on  a  bigger,  better  campaign. They talk that shit as if the national prison population hasn't tripled in ten years. They talk it because they don't know what else to say, because they know that at the very least, these are the words that most of us want to hear.


Thirty years. And now, all that's left is national failure on a grand scale, a tainted political inheritance that is backhanded from one administration to the next. Thirty years and the politicians and professionals are still offering up the kind of piss-into-the-wind optimism that compels any rational mind to recall another, comparable disaster. Listen to a big-city narcotics detective boasting about his arrest statistics, savoring them as tangible evidence of progress, and you might think of some starched Sai­gon briefing officer in an air-conditioned Quonset hut tallying up the daily body count. Or hear r




the voice of a DEA or Customs spokesman talking up the street value of some huge cocaine seizure along the Mexican border, and you might conjure the ghost of a long-dead Pentagon guru promising to carpet-bomb infiltration to a standstill along  the Ho Chi Minh trail. An urban police commander extolling the virtues of community-oriented policing as a means of regaining the trust of inner-city neigh­borhoods? He's the direct descendant of every CIA spook and Agency for International Development official who ever spoke earnestly about pacifi­cation or the model villages program. You want more? Then watch any prosecutor in any American city call the obligatory press briefing to announce the indictment of one major trafficker in a million-dollar  drug probe, even as new dealers arrive to take possession of the same open-air drug markets. That's a corps commander grinding up men, money, and machines for possession of some godforsaken Vietnamese hill, then declaring victory as he copters his people out and  returns the same real estate to his enemy.


And as with the debacle in Indochina,  the American crusade against drugs is collapsing without the loss of a single significant battle. Quite to the contrary, the reckoning already at hand in the West Baltimores of this country comes replete with a string of seeming victories: tens of thousands warehoused  in  prisons;  millions  in  contraband  and  dollars  confiscated; generations of police commanders and lawyers compiling impressive stats to assure themselves  promotion.


But these successes aren't  nearly enough, and when  the rules of  en­gagement get in the way of lasting victory, we simply change the rules, creating whole new tracts of federal statute, establishing strict mandatory punishments and unforgiving guidelines for sentencing, granting so much raw punitive power to U.S. prosecutors that federal judges around the country are left to grumble in legal journals about draconian and immoral sentencing laws. It used to be said that only in a police state could police work be made easy; yet for the sake of this war, we've gutted the Fourth Amendment, allowing race-based profiling and stop-and-frisk police tac­tics based on the most minimal probable cause. We've created civil forfei­ture statutes that make it a game for government to take what it wants­ houses, boats, planes, cars, cash-- from anyone it targets without the ne­cessity of criminal conviction. We've made mandatory drug testing a pre­rogative not only of parole and probation agents, but of any private employer in the nation. Most dramatic of all, perhaps, we have continued to escalate this war of occupation in our inner cities until more than half of the adult black male population in places like Baltimore are now, in some way, under the supervision of the criminal justice system.





This war, like the last one, will not be won. The truth in this is nakedly visible-- if  not  to  those  crafting  the  tactics  and  strategy,  then  to  those standing on the bottom, looking up at all the sound and fury. To the men and women of Fayette Street, it isn't about tightening the screws, or raising the stakes, or embracing a few more constitutional twists and turns. It isn't about three-time loser statutes or drug courts or kicking in the right door of the right stash house. It isn't that all these efforts don't work quite well enough, or that more of them will work better. It's that none of it works at all. The tactics are flawless, but the strategy is nonexistent.


At rock bottom, down here where Fayette crosses Mount Street and runs up the hill to intersect with Monroe, no one is fooled-- just as no grunt up to his ass in rice paddy could ever be fooled. Here on Fayette, every fiend and tout and runner understands; they know with a certainty to rival the faith of any religion that no one will miss his daily blast.


Against that, there will be no victory. Not if you come up  Fayette Street with bulldozers and knock over every rowhouse between downtown and Bon Secours. Shit on that; the slingers and fiends would be out here in the rubble, slinging pink-top vials. Not if you call out the National Guard  or put police officers on every corner; do that and they'll move five blocks, or ten blocks, or twenty, until there's an open-air market savaging some new neighborhood  and you've run out of cops and guardsmen.


But you still want it to work. Of course you do. Try napalm.


Seriously. One of those Rolling Thunder air strikes might  do it. Be­cause that Marine commander with the sage wit had it right: Only if you're willing to destroy the village can you be absolutely assured of saving it. Don't bother with surgical strikes for the Fayette Streets of this nation; if you want victory, you've got to send these people right back to the prover­bial Stone Age, because anyone left standing will be back on their corners the next day. Or better still, some New York Boy will figure out how to boil down the jellied gas you've been dropping, and the fiends will be lining up to buy that new, wild ride in $10 vials.


A cleansing of that kind might actually work. But of course, we can't do something even modestly genocidal and expect to stay the same our­ selves, to maintain the myth of a national ideal. A war waged openly on the underclass would necessitate some self-inflicted scars, some damage to the collective soul of whatever kind of nation we think we are. And if we can't stomach that kind of horror show, perhaps the only real alternative is to keep pretending, to keep telling ourselves that it's only a matter of a stronger law or a better mousetrap or this year's model of shit-spinning politician  swearing that he's the one to really get tough on crime.


So we ignore these dying neighborhoods, or run from them if they creep too close. In the end we know we can always cash in our chips, climb to the embassy roof and ride that last Huey to suburbia or some well­ policed  yuppie  enclave  in the best  quadrants  of  our cities. We've got  a right to walk away because it's our world; hell, we've got the tax returns to prove it.




But how far can we run from New York and Detroit, from Atlanta and Newark, from West Baltimore and East St. Louis? How many county lines must we cross before the damned of these cities will no longer follow? How many private security guards can we hire? How many motion sensors do we need? This is different, this war, and instinctively we know that retreat from it can never be total. These people that we're ready to aban­don, they are not an alien foe-- their tribe is our own. And these battle­ fields are not half a world away in places easily forgotten. This is us, America, at war with ourselves. In some weird way, this is our own mani­fest destiny coming back to bite us in the ass, the pure-pedigreed descen­dant of all those God-fearing forefathers plunging into the wilderness, stripping the land, looking to feed off their new world, killing and being killed, opening up the east and marching west. Now, it's a twisted replay of that devouring, except that this time, we're the fodder.


We know this deep down; we read the newspapers, we watch the tele­vision. We have and they have not, and therefore, they need us. They need us so badly that they'll cross the lines and dodge the rent-a-cops and climb any wall we build. And in the end, there is no real surprise when you hear that your neighbor's car is gone. Or that the counter guy at the local 7-Eleven got aced in a robbery last night. Or that someone you work with pulled up to the pumps at the Route 32 Exxon and got carjacked. There should be no surprise when you come to that hideous moment for which you've spent a lifetime preparing, when you or someone you love walks down the wrong block,  or  into the wrong  parking garage.  In an instant, the illusions are obliterated and the reckoning-- their reckoning-- is yours as well.


Thirty years gone and now the drug corner is the center of its own culture. On Fayette Street, the drugs are no longer what they sell or use, but who they are. We may have begun by fighting a war on drugs, but now we're beating down those who use them. And along Fayette Street, the enemy is everywhere, so that what began as a wrongheaded tactical mis­sion has been transformed into slow-motion civil war. If we never seriously contemplate alternatives, if we forever see the order of battle in terms of arrests and prisons and lawyers, then perhaps we deserve three more decades of failure. In the end, we'll blame them. We always do.


And why the hell not? They've ignored our warnings and sanctions, they've taken our check-day bribe and done precious little with it, they've turned our city streets into drug bazaars. Why shouldn't they take  the blame?



If it was us, if it was our lonesome  ass shuffling past  the  corner  of Monroe and Fayette every day, we'd  get out, wouldn't we?  We'd endure. Succeed. Thrive. No matter what, no matter how, we'd find the fucking exit. If it was our fathers firing dope and our mothers smoking coke, we'd pull ourselves past it. We'd raise ourselves, discipline ourselves, teach our­selves the essentials of self-denial and delayed gratification that no one in our universe ever demonstrated. And if home was the rear room of some rancid, three-story shooting gallery, we'd rise above that, too. We'd shuffle up the stairs past nodding fiends and sullen dealers, shut the  bedroom door, turn off the  television, and do our schoolwork. Algebra amid the stench of burning rock; American history between police  raids.  And if there was no food on the table, we're certain we could deal with that. We'd lie about our age to cut taters and spill grease and sling fries at the sub shop for five-and-change-an-hour, walking every day past the corner where friends are making our daily wage in ten minutes.


No matter. We'd persevere, wouldn't we? We'd work that job by night and go to class by day, by some miracle squeezing a quality education from the disaster that is the Baltimore school system. We'd do all the work, we'd pay whatever the price.  And when all the other children are out in the street, learning the corner world, priming themselves for the only life they've ever known, we'd be holed up in some shithole of a rowhouse with our textbooks and yellow highlighter, cramming for finals. Come payday, we wouldn't blow that minimum-wage check on Nikes, or Fila sweat suits, or Friday night movies at Harbor Park with the neighborhood girls. No fucking way, brother, because we pulled self-esteem out of a dark hole somewhere and damned if our every desire isn't absolutely in check. We don't need to buy any status; no, we can save every last dollar, or invest it, maybe. And in the end, we know, we'll head off to our college years shin­ing like a new dime, swearing never to set foot on West Fayette Street again.


That's the myth of it, the required lie that allows us to render our judgments. Parasites, criminals, dope fiends, dope peddlers, whores-- when we can ride past them at Fayette and Monroe, car doors locked, our field of vision cautiously restricted to the road ahead, then the long journey into darkness is underway. Pale-skinned hillbillies and hard-faced yos, toothless white trash and gold-front gangsters-- when we can glide on and feel only fear, we're well on the way. And if, after a time, we can glimpse the specta­cle of the corner and manage nothing beyond loathing and contempt, then we've arrived at last at that naked place where a man finally sees the sense in stretching razor wire and building barracks and directing cattle cars into the  compound.





It's  a reckoning  of  another  kind,  perhaps,  and  one  that  becomes  a possibility only through the arrogance and certainty that so easily accompanies a well-planned and well-tended life. We know ourselves, we believe in ourselves; from what we value most, we grant ourselves the illusion that it's not chance and circumstance, that opportunity itself isn't the defining issue. We want the high ground; we want our own worth to be acknowl­edged. Morality, intelligence, values- -we want those things measured and counted. We want  it to be  about Us.


Yes, if we were down there, if we were the damned of the American cities, we would not fail. We would rise above the corner. And when we tell ourselves such things, we unthinkingly assume that we would be con­signed to places like Fayette Street fully equipped, with all the graces and disciplines, talents and training that we now possess. Our parents would still be our parents, our teachers still our teachers, our broker still our broker. Amid the stench of so much defeat and despair, we would kick fate in the teeth and claim our deserved victory. We would escape to live the life we were supposed to live, the life we are living now. We would be saved, and as it always is in matters of salvation, we know this as a matter of perfect, pristine  faith.

Why? The truth is plain:


We were not born to be niggers.