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Our Unwinnable War

Published on June 23, 2011 by in Columns

I confess.  I’m often a little slow when it comes to discovering great television shows.  On several occasions, I’ve been known to shrug off the impassioned urgings of trusted friends and family members who have told me about the greatest new TV show.  It’s hubris, mostly, and it’s indefensible.

For years, friends of mine—really intelligent, articulate people—had been telling me how great “The Wire” was.  I feigned interest, promised to check it out, and secretly pondered how anyone so bright could be so captivated by a series that seemed so, well, boring.  It took a feature-length article in “The Atlantic,” unabashedly praising the show’s brilliant writing, for me to actually add it to my Netflix queue.

Bubbles, from “The Wire”

And it was fantastic.  Many have called it the best show ever to grace the small-screen, and I wouldn’t put up much of an argument.  The show’s genius, in part, is that it was written as a five-season arc—meticulously planned and developed, and allowed to run its course.  To experience “The Wire” is to step into a seedy underworld, fueled by corruption, entrenched in despair. To see it, as I did, in its entirety within a month or so, is like peeling an onion; it becomes richer, more powerful and pungent—until you’re left, holding nothing.

A couple weeks ago, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, a self-professed “Wire” fanatic, issued a public plea to the show’s creators, David Simon and Ed Burns.  Speaking at a press conference to announce a new anti-drug public relations campaign being launched by the Department of Justice, Holder said, “I want to speak directly to Mr. Burns and Mr. Simon: Do another season of ‘The Wire.’  That’s actually at a minimum.  If you don’t do a season, do a movie… I want another season or I want a movie.  I have a lot of power, Mr. Burns and Mr. Simon.”

Of course, Holder was (mostly) joking, pretending to throw a little weight around in hopes of getting his favorite show back into production.  But David Simon, who has emphatically refused to consider another season despite the cries, the pleading of die-hard fans, was receptive to the idea.  He said he’d be glad to do it—with one small caveat.

“The Attorney General’s kind remarks are noted and appreciated,” Simon said in a statement.  “I’ve spoken to Ed Burns and we are prepared to go to work on season six of ‘The Wire’ if the Department of Justice is equally ready to reconsider and address its continuing prosecution of our misguided, destructive and dehumanizing drug prohibition.”

Um, what?  Is he suggesting we call off the War on Drugs?  Actually, he is.  One of “The Wire’s” key messages is that the so-called “war on drugs” is unwinnable.  If you really take a hard, honest look at the drug trade, a clear picture begins to emerge.  The demand is high and the profits are large.  And for every dealer you lock up, there are several waiting to fill his or her shoes.

There’s a certain irony in all of this that’s hard to ignore.  Holder’s press conference was announcing the DoJ’s intent to double-down on drug-fighting efforts.  Simon’s measured response was a thing of genius; with a short statement, he drew attention to the absurdity of spending billions of dollars to get drugs off the streets, while subtly acknowledging that Holder is right—he has “a lot of power.”

The timing couldn’t be worse.  Last week the L.A. Times published the findings of two government reports, each of which suggest that our money spent in Latin America to combat drug trade is unjustifiable, and that the billions of dollars can’t be proven to have made a “significant difference.”  If anything, money spent in Mexico seems to have driven production into Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, destabilizing those countries.  Meanwhile, curbing cocaine production in Columbia has driven production into Peru.  The suggestion that our efforts are effective is akin to saying that turning on the lights is a great way to get rid of cockroaches.  (And we don’t have the time or space to discuss the money spent domestically, on law enforcement and prisoners—though it’s substantial.)

The tide seems to be turning, but we’re still several big ideas away from a sixth season of “The Wire.”

Originally printed in “Pulse,” 06/23/11.
© Damien Willis, 2011.  All rights reserved.

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3 Comments  comments 

3 Responses

  1. ed early

    The Wire was my favorite show!Have we won “The War on” anything?

  2. Chris


    Chris here… (from the Fort)…one of your former classmates…

    I enjoyed the post. the latest findings support those that have been reported since the 70s. Milton Friedman et al. reported in the 70s, me thinks, how inefficient a war on drugs
    would be using supply demand analysis. They also looked at the opportunity costs, standard statistical research really.

    Other studies have followed their reasoning and had similar conclusions. Some disagree from a moral perspective.

    it’s really an interesting debate. Thanks for posting some new research.

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