April 25, 2001
I had rather expected that most American newspapers would feature the photos of Veronica Bowers and her almost achingly lovely daughter in the innocent days before her killing on the front page. Poignant as the photos were, however, they were displaced by other news, pushed to the inside pages or not used at all in many papers. Perhaps the tussle over whether the United States or Peru was more to blame seemed more interesting or newsworthy than a reminder of the promise in those lives snuffed out so suddenly.
Whether these latest innocent victims of the War on Drugs will be a catalyst for broader rethinking of the prohibitory way the U.S. government approaches potentially dangerous (and in fact not so dangerous) substances is difficult to tell. Certainly all the knowledge necessary has been assembled.
But politics and public policy tend to be driven more by emotion and publicity than by rational assessment and hardheaded analysis. It is more than a little unfair that so much attention is focused on the missionaries killed so well, almost casually this time. For the last year we've had stories about skirmishes in Colombia almost every week, with a dozen killed here, seven or eight there, 50 elsewhere. Were all those Colombian lives less intrinsically valuable, more inherently interesting and worthy of discussion than the life of an American missionary connected to a respectable organization?
Insofar as Roni Bowers was a Christian she would be the first to deny it.
Wars produce casualties from what is euphemistically called "friendly fire" or "collateral damage." The cold-blooded killing of Roni Bowers and her daughter and it was cold-blooded, conscious and intentional, however the blame is finally assessed could be seen as almost promiscuous collateral damage in an inherently violent and careless conflict. And the sad thing is that the instinct of both governments to cover up and deny might have happened if the victims had not been Americans with connections to a serious missionary organization and relatives back home who learned the facts as participants talked.
Although facts still are being sorted out, what seems to be clear is that a CIA plane notified the military of Peru that a private Cessna 185 airplane was suspected of carrying drugs. The Peruvian Air Force then shot down the plane.
But both governments at first tried to pretend that nothing at all had happened. Then the US government tried to deny that drug agents were even tailing the Cessna plane or communicating with the Peruvians it has supplied and urged to become more active "partners" (or is that "accomplices"?) in the Holy War on Drugs. The Peruvian government at first tried to deny that the Cessna had even filed a flight plan, which presumably would make it the more suspicious.
But these were all lies, proving once again that in war the first casualty is truth. Because there was an established organization sponsoring the missionaries, it didn't take that long for the lies to unravel. Unfortunately most of the media will not emphasize the early lies, but implicitly chalk it up to understandable confusion ion the immediate wake of and unfortunate tragedy.
The Peruvians said they ordered the plane to land. But "the pilot was in radio contact with the tower at the time the shooting began. The tower people heard that and were aware of what was going on over the radio," Michael Loftis told ABC News; he's president of the Association of Baptists for World Evangelism, with which Ms. Bowers was associated.
A proper flight plan had been filled out and was on file at the flight tower where the plane was landing; a copy of the flight plan is on the ABWE Web site. The ABWE site also says that the pilot was in contact with the Peruvian control tower.
My colleague at the Orange County Register, John Seiler, contacted Ian Vasquez, born in Peru and now director of the Cato Institute's Project on Global Economic Liberty. This kind of indiscriminate shooting down of alleged drug planes "is a policy we dare not conduct in the United States," Ian Vasquez said.
He also pointed out that the US government "supposedly is trying to help advance civil society" in Peru through aiding such democratic institutions as the legislature and free markets. But such military assaults, as well as "pervasive corruption from the drug war," have the opposite result. "This is the result of the drug war. The result is corruption and violence, not a reduction in drugs going to the United States."
This time the incident came to public attention and continues to attract more coverage in part because the victims were the kind of goodhearted, decent Americans with whom most of us can identify. "But typically the victims of the drug war in Latin America are peasants, so they're not noticed," Ian Vasquez said. The peasants often are caught in the crossfire between "the military and drug-financed groups."
I talked to Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Lindesmith Center-Drug Policy Foundation, perhaps the leading advocate of drug policy reform in the country. Besides noting just how despicable it was to purposely and consciously kill people in pursuit of a failed policy, he pointed out that there are plenty of anonymous victims of the drug war right here in the United States.
"Whenever the police raid the wrong apartment or terrorize innocent family members while conducting a 'dynamic entry' raid into some drug seller's home, more drug-war victims are created," Nadelmann said. "Many were shocked at the way Elian Gonzalez was removed from his relatives' home last year, with the assault rifle apparently pointed right at the face of the frightened young boy. But similar raids are conducted on 'enemies' in the drug war every day in America. It was from the drug war that the Feds learned and refined such tactics."
Unfortunately the Bush administration seems to be moving in the wrong direction when it comes to the Latin American drug war. Already Plan Colombia has been transformed into the "Andean Initiative." The reason. Countries surrounding Colombia, including Peru, Bolivia and Panama, have expressed trepidation about Colombia's narco-civil war spilling across borders into their countries. Rather than using such concerns as an occasion for rethinking the Colombia incursion, the administration has sought to buy the neighbors off with promises of increased aid and materiel.
All this is more like the action of a self-conscious world empire, which treats other countries not as nations with equal rights but as de facto colonies, than of the America devoted to liberty and self-determination we all thought we grew up in.
Rather than being reconsidered, the ill-advised war in Colombia is due to be expanded and to become much more expensive to American taxpayers. The scuttlebutt that John Walters, a hard-line drug warrior who was assistant to the infamous William Bennett when he was "drug czar" is the administration's choice to be the new drug dictator is especially ominous. Walters was the designated hitter for certain Republicans who wanted to claim that the Clinton administration, as it increased spending and filled the prisons with even more drug "criminals" just wasn't prosecuting the "war" aggressively or vigorously enough.
The metaphor "war on drugs" has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The actual title of the office Mr. Walters is rumored to be slated to head is the Office of National Drug Control Policy, not the Office of Maximum Prohibition Enforcement. That could mean it could be used as a platform for independent assessment of various criminal-justice, harm-reduction and rehabilitation-oriented policies, with the mission of developing the best blend of approaches to achieve discrete and realistic goals. Instead it is likely to remain a platform for repression and self-righteous lectures. And war with real casualties and real bodies.
The signs that most Americans are ready for different approaches are multifarious. Not only has medical marijuana been approved every time it has been on a state ballot, by margins ranging from 56 to 69 percent, but California passed Proposition 36 (similar to a measure conservative Arizona voters passed twice, once after the state legislature tried to nullify it), which mandates probation and treatment rather than incarceration for the first three simple drug-possession offenses.
In Washington, however, the bureaucrats who have so much invested in the drug war are sternly resisting the message the voters, who are theoretically supposed to be their bosses, are trying to send them. The federal government's official position, in defiance of all the scientific information (including a great deal developed and summarized by the government itself in various reports) is that marijuana has no medical uses and is uniquely dangerous and subject to abuse. It is small comfort to those who question the Holy War that it has to be built on a tissue of lies and misrepresentations. The liars still control the levers of power.
But for some reason the movie "Traffic," released in the wake of all these developments, seems to have stirred more questioning than ever before regarding the drug war. Most Americans in respectable mainstream surveys will now respond "yes" to the question whether the drug war is a failure, although there is little consensus about what should be done in light of this assessment.
Will the killing of Roni Bowers and her daughter Charity wake up more Americans to the deadly realities of the war on drugs and hasten a reassessment of government policy? It might happen, although it would be premature to make a prediction. The irrational fear of chemical compounds and plants that the government has systematically encouraged to bolster its war still grips many Americans. And the warriors still control most of the levers of power.
But then there are those photographs of a young woman and her daughter, two gentle souls whose potential to do good in life was so suddenly and ignominiously ripped from them by a Peruvian fighter jet. Who can gaze on them and not wonder whether a policy that treated these souls full of life and joy as victims to be killed carelessly, almost thoughtlessly because incomplete, incorrect information suggested that their plane might be that of a drug trafficker, is fundamentally wrong and un-American?
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