Without a doubt, we Americans are in a bad way. The senseless deaths this week in Baton Rouge, La., Falcon Heights, Minn., and now Dallas are devastating beyond comprehension for the victims and their families. Each shooting is also an act in a shared national tragedy. The problems go down to the very roots.
The question of whether as a country we are headed in the right or wrong direction can no longer be answered simply with reference to policy matters such as the economy, education or foreign relations. Instead we face the fundamental question of whether we, the people, as a single people, are holding together and can hold together.
What has brought us here? You will be skeptical of my answer but in the years since I published a book called “Talking to Strangers,” I have been watching the course we were on and I keep coming back to the same answer. I truly believe that the war on drugs is responsible for the level of violence in our cities, the militarization of the police, a concomitant distortion of policing habits and a process of degradation of inner-city minority communities that is now decades-long.
Americans of all races use drugs and do so, with the exception of Asian Americans, at roughly the same rates; yet our laws are disproportionately enforced against African American and Latino Americans. Our hypocrisy has cut into our soul.
The judicial system is swollen with non-violent drug offenses, leading to a reduction of resources for investigating and prosecuting homicides, which in turn has dramatically reduced homicide clearance rates in all major cities.
The failure of the criminal justice system to clear homicides in major cities leads to an acceleration of violence in those cities, and a trigger-happy environment in which police and civilians are more likely to misuse lethal force.
Violence in inner cities reinforces negative stereotypes of African Americans as dangerous and threatening, making unarmed African Americans disproportionately vulnerable to police violence and feeding implicit bias that negatively affects the employment prospects of African Americans, all of which permits the cycle to deepen and perdure.
The combination of the criminalization of drugs and the concomitant impacts on levels of violence in our community have filled our prisons to a level the world has never before seen. It is hard to find an African American or Latino person in this country not personally impacted by this through extended family relations; and plenty of white Americans are also personally impacted by it.
Police have been on the front lines of the war on drugs. As such, they, too, must be recognized as being among its victims. They are obliged to enforce foolish laws and in so doing incur the wrath of their fellow citizens. They are obliged to meet their obligations of service and the calls of duty in conditions of great violence that we, as a people, have generated with both our laws and the widespread habit, among drug users of all races, of disregarding those laws. The conditions of violence in which the police operate have distorted their roles.
If we care to build a peaceful, prosperous and just society for all, we must end prohibition; we must end the war on drugs. We must learn how to achieve narcotics control as a matter of public health policy, not criminal justice.
This, I believe, is what it will take for us to establish the conditions in which we can effect the safety and happiness of all Americans, whether they are African American motorists or street vendors, police on or off duty, or bystanders of one or another kind. We should put aside our party disputes and dig deep into the constitutional question of whether we can hold ourselves together as a people. President Obama, Speaker Ryan, Senator McConnell, can you for once do something together?
We cannot be a people and be at war with ourselves. The war on drugs must end.