Monday, December 20


TV is not a vast wasteland when it comes to some HBO series such as Deadwood and The Wire. The third season of the latter just ended with the usual feature film production values but more importantly with patient and literate novel-like scripts. This series remembers what many of the shortcuts to sound and fury signifying nothing in dramatic entertainment lead many to forget - that without the best writing what is left is just nice pictures and wasted actors.

At first sight the series appears to be a cops and robbers story set among the precincts and drug corners of Baltimore. What is different is the time taken over a dozen or so episodes per season to tell a single story with well crafted exposition and development of all of the characters, none of whom are stereotypes. The series is actually supposed to be based on real events and people from Baltimore's past.

The dealers form a cartel to take the violence out of 'the game' and keep the profit. Some get into the gentrification business. The killings continue. The police try to find a way to 'wire' the disposable cell phones used by the dealers they have been pursuing for three seasons. All are portrayed without sentiment - the misanthropes, the corrupt, the dedicated and the politicians from all sides.

However, the series does not lose its moral center the way another HBO series, the Sopranos does. There, the sheer banality of so many numbing years of evil without consequence forces a moral accomodation on the viewer with mob boss Tony Soprano that the literary device of his psychiatrist does not improve. The suspension of morals required to follow the Corleone family would certainly have collapsed by Godfather XII. In the Wire, throughout all of its Machiavellian intrigue and Shakespearian tragedy, it is always quite clear what the criminals are.

This year a district commander reacted atypically when an undercover policeman is shot in a drug deal. Nearing retirement and frustrated by years of wasted effort in the drug wars and political pressure to cut crime he makes a curious speech about the 'great moment of civic compromise' initiated in the 1950s or so when the first corner drunk put his bottle in a paper bag. The drinkers could then drink in peace while creating an artificial zone of respect for the law while the police were free to chase actual crime rather than endlessly chasing otherwise harmless citizens.

So the commander tries it out, secretly for a while, in his district - effectively legalizing drugs in several 'free zones' which become popularly pronounced as Hamsterdam. Unlike the original though there are no picturesque canals and slumming tourists. What results is a concentrated Dante-esque circle of hell on earth, although protected from most violence by the police, where everything else goes.

Of course, it all hits the fan eventually and the commander's head rolls but not before there are impressive drops in crime everywhere else in the district. People tend flowers and sit on the steps of their classic Baltimore row houses watching their children safely play outside. The police resume the community patrolling that was abandoned decades ago and at community meetings citizens have the luxury of complaing about loud motorcycles and not shootings.

The final police assault on Hamsterdam is a chance for the director to indulge himself and to graphically express his point of view. Like the Air Cavalry assault on the V.C. held village in Apocalypse Now the 'Ride of the Valkyries' blares from loudspeakers and the same lines of dialogue are heard from circling helicopters. All that is missing is the surfing and smell of napalm.

In the end the logic of the martyred commander is seductive. Why not try it out? - seems to be the question after the bloody drug wars and wasted lives. Essentially drugs had been traded with relative impunity all along with the associated violence a feature of their relative illegality. It is not that simple as this eloquent article in the City Journal discusses.
The arguments in favor of legalizing the use of all narcotic and stimulant drugs are twofold: philosophical and pragmatic. Neither argument is negligible, but both are mistaken, I believe, and both miss the point.

The philosophic argument is that, in a free society, adults should be permitted to do whatever they please, always provided that they are prepared to take the consequences of their own choices and that they cause no direct harm to others.

[... however ...]

The idea that freedom is merely the ability to act upon one’s whims is surely very thin and hardly begins to capture the complexities of human existence; a man whose appetite is his law strikes us not as liberated but enslaved. And when such a narrowly conceived freedom is made the touchstone of public policy, a dissolution of society is bound to follow. No culture that makes publicly sanctioned self-indulgence its highest good can long survive: a radical egotism is bound to ensue, in which any limitations upon personal behavior are experienced as infringements of basic rights. Distinctions between the important and the trivial, between the freedom to criticize received ideas and the freedom to take LSD, are precisely the standards that keep societies from barbarism.

[... the pragmatic argument is that ...]

the overwhelming majority of the harm done to society by the consumption of currently illicit drugs is caused not by their pharmacological properties but by their prohibition and the resultant criminal activity that prohibition always calls into being. Simple reflection tells us that a supply invariably grows up to meet a demand; and when the demand is widespread, suppression is useless. Indeed, it is harmful, since—by raising the price of the commodity in question—it raises the profits of middlemen, which gives them an even more powerful incentive to stimulate demand further. The vast profits to be made from cocaine and heroin—which, were it not for their illegality, would be cheap and easily affordable even by the poorest in affluent societies—exert a deeply corrupting effect on producers, distributors, consumers, and law enforcers alike. Besides, it is well known that illegality in itself has attractions for youth already inclined to disaffection.
It stands to reason, therefore, that all these problems would be resolved at a stroke if everyone were permitted to smoke, swallow, or inject anything he chose. The corruption of the police, the luring of children of 11 and 12 into illegal activities, the making of such vast sums of money by drug dealing that legitimate work seems pointless and silly by comparison, and the turf wars that make poor neighborhoods so exceedingly violent and dangerous, would all cease at once were drug taking to be decriminalized and the supply regulated in the same way as alcohol.

[... however ...]

And so long as the demand for material goods outstrips supply, people will be tempted to commit criminal acts against the owners of property. This is not an argument, in my view, against private property or in favor of the common ownership of all goods. It does suggest, however, that we shall need a police force for a long time to come.
The author goes on to point out that by setting the bar lower for the standards of civilization that other antisocial behavior is encouraged. He feels that "a decline in convictions is not necessarily the same as a decline in criminal acts." Even addicts on methadone continue to commit crimes at a high rate even though they no longer need vast sums to feed their habit. In addition
Those psychologically unstable persons currently taking drugs would continue to do so, with the necessity to commit crimes removed, while psychologically stabler people (such as you and I and our children) would not be enticed to take drugs by their new legal status and cheapness. But price and availability, I need hardly say, exert a profound effect on consumption: the cheaper alcohol becomes, for example, the more of it is consumed, at least within quite wide limits.
it is often claimed that prison does not work because many prisoners are recidivists who, by definition, failed to be deterred from further wrongdoing by their last prison sentence. But does any sensible person believe that the abolition of prisons in their entirety would not reduce the numbers of the law-abiding? The murder rate in New York and the rate of drunken driving in Britain have not been reduced by a sudden upsurge in the love of humanity, but by the effective threat of punishment. An institution such as prison can work for society even if it does not work for an individual.

[... finally ...]

Analogies with the Prohibition era, often drawn by those who would legalize drugs, are false and inexact: it is one thing to attempt to ban a substance that has been in customary use for centuries by at least nine-tenths of the adult population, and quite another to retain a ban on substances that are still not in customary use, in an attempt to ensure that they never do become customary. Surely we have already slid down enough slippery slopes in the last 30 years without looking for more such slopes to slide down.
So there it is. We agree that ultimately legalizing drugs would do more harm than good. But what of the real and fictional folks who call those Baltimore row houses home? The ones in the story now have to see the vile army of occupation of drug dealers and addicts return while the real people of the inner city never got a break at all.

Overall crime levels have declined drastically nationwide in the past decade but for whatever reason Baltimore continued to experience a bloody business as usual. More prisons and a 'broken windows' approach to police work have helped as well as the simple attrition of the violent and drug using population of the New Jack 80s and 90s. Arguably economic and other social changes were the most potent. Either way no great moments of civic compromise await us in declaring this particular kind of crime alright.

The human toll of the drug wars as seen in this series is awful. In the three years so far almost forty young men died at the hands of their own or were imprisoned by the efforts of police in the service of the Barksdale-Bell drug cartel alone. In the end that cartel falls and another rises and the circles of hell reach back out to take in the neighborhoods of Baltimore.

<< Home