Communicating the War on Drugs

Something that has bothered me for quite a while is how libertarians, when they are right, fail to communicate effectively the problems they correctly identify. It is definitely the case that contemporary society is far more statist than “marketist” and that most problems therefore should, even if it cannot be proved, statistically be a product of the state rather than the market. It is also true that a lot of the problems often blamed on the non-existent free market are products of the state, state power, and state aggression.

An example of such a problem is the so-called War on Drugs, which causes a huge number of deaths every year. Most people who die are completely innocent of any crime and they are in no way guilty of ever aggressing on another’s person or property. So what did they wrong? They smoked or drank or inhaled or injected the wrong thing – if it isn’t licensed by the state it could cost you your life. Not because the substance is dangerous, but because the state will kill you or at least lock you up for not obeying orders. And before you’re killed or locked up, or if you happen to not be one of the millions in these categories, you are forced to finance this unnecessary and outrageous slaughter. This is the sad truth.

The War on Drugs, just like any war, is to the detriment of common people and is fought at the cost of the very same. The only people who benefit are the ones starting and carrying out the war, i.e. politicians/dictators and the military and its suppliers. This is a general fact of war, which is hardly ever discussed when the state wages war on something that is considered a public bad: drugs, poverty, terrorism, or whatever.

But it is not these general truths I would like to discuss in this blog post. My writing this is a direct result of an article I read recently on Reason Online: Another Drug Raid Nightmare: The railroading of Ryan Frederick. I couldn’t agree more with the author of this article; this is a sad story of an innocent guy who is literally attacked in the middle of the night by the local police. As anyone in his situation, he fears for his life and defends himself – and kills a police. He is now facing a lifetime sentence or possible death, which is a quite common result of defending yourself when attacked by the state. And it is an increasingly common problem.

Remember, when you are attacked by another person and defend yourself, the perpetrator either goes free or is locked up in some state indoctrination institution at the cost of you as taxpayer. But if you defend yourself against an attack by the people who have sworn to serve and protect [the state] you will be punished according to the age-old law of “eye for an eye” – or worse.

The guy in this Reason Online article, Ryan Frederick, is not, as far as we can tell, guilty of the crime the police officers were to apprehend him for. But that does not matter; guilty or not, you do not have the right to defend yourself, no matter the circumstances, if you are aggressed by a state kommissar.

What the author of this Reason Online piece wants to communicate is exactly this: that the police can make terrible mistakes, but that you will be held guilty for any consequences. What should be read between the lines is this: someone has to do something about this, this can’t go on.

But this, I believe, is not what most people would see when reading the article. Let’s have a look at a few paragraphs from the article. It begins like this:

Imagine you’re home alone.

It’s 8 p.m. You work an early shift and need to be out the door before sunrise, so you’re already in bed. Your nerves are a bit frazzled, because earlier in the week someone broke into your home. Oddly, they didn’t take anything; they just rifled through your belongings.

But the violation weighs on your mind. At about the time you drift off, you’re awakened by fierce barking from your two large dogs. You hear someone crashing into your front door, as if he’s trying to separate it from its hinges. You grab the gun you keep for home defense and leave your room to investigate.

This past January that scenario played out at the Chesapeake, Virginia, home of 28-year-old Ryan Frederick, a slight man of little more than 100 pounds. According to interviews since the incident, Frederick says when he looked toward his front door, he saw an intruder trying to enter through one of the lower door panels. So Frederick fired his gun.

The intruders were from the Chesapeake Police Department. They had come to serve a drug warrant. Frederick’s bullet struck Detective Jarrod Shivers in the side, killing him. Frederick was arrested and has spent the last six weeks in a Chesapeake jail.

He has been charged with first degree murder.

Most, if not all, libertarians are at this point outraged – what do you mean charged with first degree murder? It was self defense! I agree, of course. This poor guy was simply trying to defend himself and his property against an attacker who happened to be a police officer – but there is no way Mr. Frederick could know that, since the police officer chose to break down the door in the middle of the night and climb right in. If he had knocked on the door closer to business hours and identified himself, this would all have ended very differently – but he had to play Clint Eastwood protected by a state “right to kill” badge.

To any libertarian, even though killing the guy is probably a little off the principle of proportionality, the bad guy in this story is no doubt the police officer. This is not the case because libertarians dislike, to put it very mildly, state officers – the police officer is the bad guy because he is the attacker and Mr. Frederick had every right to defend himself and his property.

This is not the way the state sees it, of course:

Paul Ebert, the special prosecutor assigned to the case, has indicated he may elevate the charge to capital murder, which would enable the state to seek the death penalty.

Outrageous!

But leaving the prosecutor aside, what does the Reason Online article accomplish? The first answer is of course that a lot of libertarian readers are literally pissed off with this injustice for one reason or the other (no pun intended). But what about non-libertarians? I suspect a lot of libertarians forward this article, and many like it, to friends and family showing them the horrors of the state and the state force of aggression (a.k.a. the police).

I am pretty sure most people would not be outraged by how the police acted in this case, even though libertarians probably assume everybody will react the exact same way they do. Rather, the “normal” responses to the above quoted paragraphs are probably along these lines:

  • “Well, if he hadn’t had a gun he would not be in the kind of trouble he is. Why would he need a gun anyway?”
  • “He can’t be innocent – if the police were there he must have done something wrong. So he has earned his time in jail anyhow.”
  • “What about that poor police officer – and what about his family? He was just doing his job when that pot-smoking thug shot him down. And the killer was probably on drugs anyway.”

This is the common response, I think, to such an article as the one published on Reason Online. Why? Well, if we knew that we would already have done something about it, wouldn’t we? What’s important here is to realize that most people probably don’t react to the story as the average libertarian does – they are educated to automatically take the state’s side with justifications such as sweeping statements like “if the police was there he must have done something wrong.”

Forwarding this article, like any other such article, to non-libertarians simply doesn’t do the trick. I claim people aren’t convinced of the state’s evil by reading such articles; they are more likely to take a defensive stance to protect their belief in status quo from challenging thoughts.

So the article does not change anything – it confirms the views of the reader, no matter what the reader’s views are. Libertarians read the article and are outraged by the police brutality and how the state treats the poor Mr. Frederick who was so brutally attacked. Non-libertarians see yet another proof that there are dangerous people out there with both drugs and guns – and that not even police officers are safe.

I don’t know the purpose of the article, and since it is published by Reason I suspect it is aimed for a libertarian audience. As such, it is good reading and is in a way preaching to the choir. But if the purpose, at least to some extent, is to convince non-libertarians of how “our” police state treats people “like us” it is way off target. It does not matter how clear it is to libertarian readers – the article doesn’t clearly show that Mr. Frederick was an ordinary citizen and that this could happen to anyone including you.

The kind of stories told in this Reason Online article is often part of libertarians’ arsenal in trying to make the general public understand the facts of the War on Drugs. But such attempts are destined to fail and possibly make things worse. In order to sell the facts of the War on Drugs we need to realize that the opinions on the War on Drugs aren’t primarily about the facts but about feelings. Talking of drugs and guns, people generally think of the mafia and ruthless Hollywood-style drug lords killing just for the fun of it. They don’t think of poor individuals whose lives are brutally destroyed by a state that doesn’t care about them, the drugs, or justice.

What we should try try to do is not show the facts, but to sell the idea that the War on Drugs first and foremost is wrong and, secondly, that it has disastrous consequences. As is the case in any sale, we need to know who the potential customer is and approach him or her in a way that suits him or her. Using our own terminology and drawing our own conclusions while asking people to read a number of books and articles doesn’t sell our ideas at all.

We’re in the business of selling ideas, and therefore we must act as if we actually have something to sell – and that it is good for the potential customer. The sad truth is that we’re such poor sales people.

About Per Bylund

Per Bylund

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