Ted Gup, an author and journalism professor, is writer-in-residence at Durham University in Britain.
We know numbers can be numbing. Take the number 4,000. That is roughly how many are estimated to have died last year from drug overdoses in my home state of Ohio. That’s 60 percent of American deaths in all the years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq. Or half a million, the tally of overdoses nationwide from opioids and other drugs since 2000 — more than the number of Americans killed in World War II. As the totals grow, so does the numbness.
So take the number one. That’s the number of sons I have lost to heroin.
One more number: 21. That is how many years he lived.
The fact that five years have passed since he was found lifeless on the floor means nothing each time I see his picture, pass others his age laughing or holding hands, or attend my students’ graduations. The number one — his name was David — cannot be rounded up or down. It is absolute, like the loss itself.
Still, there are other numbers to consider now. There is the number 95 — that is the percentage by which President Trump originally proposed slashing the budget of the Office of National Drug Control Policy.
That same month, the coroner in Dayton, Ohio, ran out of space for the overdoses. In my hometown of Canton, they had to use cold storage trailers. In Akron — where my son died amid his college texts, his homework and a scarcely worn new suit — a 1-year-old was added to the list of fatalities.
That Trump backed away from those draconian cuts does not mask his callous disregard or the message it sent. He still proposes millions in cuts to the high-intensity drug trafficking program and the drug-free communities program, reducing funding for addiction treatment and research. And repealing the Affordable Care Act would erode coverage for addiction treatment.
Flashback: “I just want to let the people of New Hampshire know that I’m with you 1,000 percent.” That was candidate Trump sympathizing with an audience staggered by loss.
On the campaign trail, Trump also promised he would pull out of the Paris climate agreement, roll back regulations on industry and challenge NATO. On those promises, he is making good. Not so on his pledge to the traumatized citizens of New Hampshire — site of the first primary and home to the second-highest rate of drug deaths.
Ohio, ground zero of the drug plague, was instrumental in putting Trump in the White House. Indeed, one political historian, Kathleen Frydl, has written of an “Oxy Electorate” (referencing the opioid OxyContin) whose overdose-plagued families helped propel Trump to the White House.
Overdoses are not just a pet project of grieving parents like myself, but a profound threat to the nation at large. Yes, there is the endless barrage of pleas to 911, the coroner’s calls to unsuspecting parents, the classmates left brokenhearted, the funerals and the bedrooms left just as they were. (Our David’s ashes are on a closet shelf.) But beyond the tugging at heartstrings, drug overdoses pose a threat to who we are as a nation, what value we place on human life and how seriously we take the notion of community.
As a nation, we seem fixated on the foreign and the sudden, incapable of focusing on what is near and constant. If the drug fatalities were all suffered in a single 9/11-like attack, we would be consumed; the steady seepage of lives scarcely moves us. The failure to address the drug epidemic is not an anomaly but a case study in the shortcomings of human attention and political accounting. From global warming to deteriorating infrastructure, from declining schools to the hollowing out of the middle class, the incremental gets short shrift. It seems beyond our political grasp and communal will.
Besides, ours is a constituency without clout, a disparate base that is not easily rallied to political effect, but which cuts across class, race, age, religion and party affiliation. Tears are the common denominator. We make for good TV in the primaries when cameras pan our grief and the earnest faces of candidates mouthing commitment. And we apparently make for easy targets when the budget knives come out. At both the federal and state levels, spending on the crisis has almost always been flat or reduced, even as the death toll soars.
How is it that we as a nation can give so little attention to a problem of such magnitude, one that any actuary knows poses a far more imminent threat than terrorism, that takes more lives than guns or cars or suicide? The political landscape resonates with the rhetoric of compassion but is defined by minimal engagement, official neglect and government inaction. In this, Trump is only the most visible of hypocrites, the betrayer in chief. We fret endlessly about national security and distant perils as we strive to bury our own in city, town and countryside, resigned to lip service and official indifference. For those of us already collateral casualties of this crisis, it is impossible not to wonder what sum is sufficient to sound the alarm and secure a meaningful response. For me, the number was one.
Read more on this topic: