“A drug-free world. We can do it!” No, sometimes, we just can’t.

Historians around 2100 and beyond will surely look at the ‘war on drugs’ as one of the most absurd policies of the 21st century. Much like we, today, react with a derogatory, “WTF were they thinking?” when reading about the US prohibition of alcohol back in the 1920s. Our descendants will probably be less forgiving of us, however, precisely because of our haste to pass judgment on our Prohibition-era selves.

After executing 7 foreigners and 1 Indonesian for drug smuggling charges last Wednesday, Indonesian Attorney General, Muhammad Prasetyo, told reporters, “I would like to say that an execution is not a pleasant thing. It is not a fun job.” His primary concern seemingly to put everyone at ease over any convictions of sadism they thought he might have. He continued, “But we must do it in order to save the nation from the danger of drugs.”

He, nor the Indonesian President, Joko Widodo, got into the specifics of how exactly the killing of 8 drug convicts – 14 in total this year, if we count executions in January – would achieve that. Sure, it would stop these 14 individuals from putting drugs back on Indonesia’s streets; but even then at least two of them – Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran of the Australian “Bali Nine” smuggling ring – were actually working on getting drugs out of the country.

Every time Widodo has found himself faced with the question of why he chose to reinstate the death penalty for drug offences, he has reiterated the same response: that 50 people die each day in Indonesia from drug use. That that would put the annual figure at 18,000 and the decennial figure at 180,000 – numbers an Al Jazeera journalist countered were unverifiable. And that, for this reason, his government cannot compromise on the death penalty for drug dealers. So, presumably, he perceives it to be a deterrent. But, believing capital punishment should be a deterrent, does not make it one.

There have been many studies trying to prove or disprove the theory that executions ultimately save lives by putting off would-be criminals from committing an offence. The problem with these studies is that so many random variables factor into a single crime, it can make the evidence for or against the existence of a deterrent effect “very fragile and unstable”. Frankly, if you’re choosing to put someone to death to send a message, you should at least be able to extend them the courtesy of guaranteeing that message is delivered to the right recipient – through a DHL-style courier service, for example, and not by throwing an unstamped envelope in the Indonesian post and hoping for the best.

Although the deliberate execution of bootleggers didn’t exist during Prohibition, the US government did construe of an equally nonsensical deterrent for the distribution and consumption of alcohol. This was, to borrow from Bill Bryson’s One Summer: America 1927, “to poison a random assortment of citizens in an attempt to keep the rest of them sober”. In order to deter its citizens from drinking alcohol produced for legitimate reasons*, the US government chose to lace it with poisons such as mercury, making it – if not just unpalatable – lethal for human consumption. Unfortunately, in its ingenious plan to make alcohol more nocuous than it was before it was banned, the state failed to factor in the human resolve for achieving a state of inebriation. So it is that, in hindsight, we criticise the Prohibition for having passed the control and extremely lucrative revenues of alcohol distribution from the hands of the government to those of a sophisticated underground criminal network as, “easily the most extreme, ill judged, costly and ignored experiment in social engineering ever conducted by an otherwise rational nation.”** Until now.

Instead of learning the lesson of Prohibition in America, the United Nation’s strategy for a “drug free world” has adapted it to a global scale. But, similar to alcohol, trying to suppress drugs is like playing a perpetual game of whac-a-mole: however much you successfully target one area of the supply and demand chain, another will always pop up to taunt you a short distance away. Consequently, the ‘war on drugs’ has, by some estimates, created a global illicit drug trade worth $300 billion annually. Money diligently spent on expanding drug lords’ collections of gold-encrusted weapons embossed with images of the Virgin Mary or of exotic animals featuring high on the IUCN’s endangered species list. Then there’s the human cost of cartel related violence, or of the violence that drug trafficking enables.*** And the human cost or misery exerted by governments keen to take a tough stance on drugs through mass incarcerations, the blocking of HIV-preventing needle exchanges, and the enactment of draconian punitive measures no where near fit for the crime.

Despite the evidence to the contrary, indebted countries continue to justify throwing money at enforcement-led drug policies, “at the expense of proven public health policies”, bent on eradicating the ineradicable and running on a decade’s old slogan, “a drug-free world. We can do it!” No, sometimes we should acknowledge the unambiguous history lesson and accept that we just can’t.

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* These included paint thinners, anti-freeze and antiseptics.

** Bill Bryson (2013) One Summer: America 1927

*** The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) contends that drug trafficking and global terrorism are interlinked – a position recognized by the UN Security Council – the scale of the relationship is hard to assess. A direct connection was found between the Madrid bombings and the illicit drug trade, where drugs were the currency used to commission the bombings.

Of man and migration

The Great Migration must be wondrous to behold. Each winter, hundreds of thousands of wildebeest, zebras and gazelles descending on the perilous waters of the Mara river to cross over to the greener pastures of the Maasai Mara National Reserve. A glorious reminder of nature’s cycle: beast moving in sync with the changing phases of its environment for survival’s sake. It’s no wonder thousands of tourists flock to the region every year to bear witness to the event; some probably letting out an involuntary whimper when a young calf is dragged under by a crocodile.

The Great Migration: Wildebeests crossing the Mara river. Photo courtesy of Kurt Jay Bertels

The Great Migration: Wildebeests crossing the Mara river. Photo courtesy of Kurt Jay Bertels

A similar trek also involving a treacherous body of water and basic survival instincts, but without the wildebeest, and the picture no longer seems to be the inspiration of pastel-coloured oil paintings. To the contrary, when speaking of human migration even the language used changes from adjectives such as “graceful” and “heroic” to “they might look a bit ‘Bob Geldof’s Ethiopia circa 1984’.” (Bob Geldof’s activism having been so effective against poverty it has achieved the same reference status as a hue on a colour chart).

Similarly, when the human migrant is pulled under the Mediterranean’s unforgiving currents, it is not the sound of whimpering we hear as much as that of compassion and tact failing miserably at the hands of thinly disguised self-interest. When  Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, decided to put in his two cents on the deaths of an estimated 1000 migrants in the Mediterranean this week, his advice to his European counterparts to opt for an iron-fisted approach began with, “I suppose we must grieve for the loss”. Closer to the crisis’ epicentre, and European Commission spokesperson, Natasha Bertaud, rationalised Europe’s lukewarm response to the news of the latest fatalities with something approaching a bride scorned by the death of a future in-law a week before her wedding.

Human migration is as divisive an issue as it gets and the current emergency engulfing Europe and North Africa is testament to that. We are told that every angle of the story is some varying degree of “complex”. From the root cause behind people’s choice to embark on such a dangerous journey to the proposed solutions for simultaneously diminishing the risk of more migrant deaths and more immigration towards the European Union. Attempting to broach the subject even leads into a web-like trap you have to spend the next few hours helplessly trying to entangle yourself from.

Within the web, two main camps become apparent: on the one side, there’s the, “It’s complicated and it shouldn’t be our problem” camp. They don’t appreciate finger-pointing much, especially when it’s directed at Europe or its members for their handling of the situation. Some within the camp consider that enough money has already been put forward and a cash-strapped, pro-austerity Europe with high unemployment is in no position to be funding a search and rescue program or the costs of increasing its population through mass immigration. A few, like the Theresa Mays (UK Home Secretary) and Nigel Farages (leader of right-wing UKIP party), of the camp also believe search and rescue to be counterintuitive – acting as a “pull factor” for “millions” of future migrants – and that boats should be escorted back to their starting point. Offering sanctuary to “‘a few thousand’ Christian refugees” would be acceptable, however.*

On the other side, there’s the “Being humane is simple” camp, made up of the finger-pointers who state unequivocally that saving the lives of fellow men, women and children should not even be questioned. They are of the opinion that a search and rescue operation of the scope of Mare Nostrum – the Italian program which was scrapped last year for being too burdensome for Italy’s coffers – should be reinstated before targeting the smugglers who pack asylum seekers on dingy boats with nothing more than well wishes and a compass. Most within this camp argue that Europe is not actually inundated by millions of immigrants, that its minimalist policies are driven by widespread xenophobia, and that its members should do their moral duty and each increase their intake of refugees. A smaller group go the extra mile and rally against the hypocrisy of EU member nationals who, while figuratively sharpening the stakes of the Union’s border fences, suffer from selective amnesia regarding the origins of their own ascendants (a connection to some exotic location only being recalled with pride when it reveals our worldliness and culture) or, for those pure-breds, the origins of the very wealth which draws immigrants to our golden shores.

Maybe this will be the year when Europe will adopt a comprehensive immigration policy that will alleviate the worst effects of the crisis, or, alternatively, that the conflicts and oppression in Syria, Eritrea, Somalia and Libya** will all come to an end. Until then, we can turn our attention back to the National Geographic channel and admire the throng of courageous wildebeests charging the river banks in the blind hope they will reach the sweeter grass on the other side.

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* The last point only being advocated by Nigel Farage and not Theresa May.

** To name but a few.

On gun violence in the US: “Shit. I’m sorry man, I shot you.”

Here we are. An era in which spilling a cup of coffee on a complete stranger could cause more panic than accidentally shooting someone. The muted dismay we hear in the voice of volunteer Tulsa reserve deputy, Robert Bates, when he says, “I shot him. I’m sorry,” after firing his weapon into the back of an already immobilised Eric Harris, on April 2nd, is a reaction more reminiscent of a schoolboy being caught sticking chewing gum under his desk. The schoolboy might have even had more use for an exclamation mark. That’s not to say that Bates does not feel remorse and pain at having fatally wounded a man because, he says, he mistook his handgun for a taser. But, the tone that’s evident in the released police video, including the sadistic words of a cop who told Harris, “Fuck your breath,” when the latter protested he couldn’t breathe, demonstrates how little it matters to pull a trigger and shoot someone in the US these days.

Two days after this incident, Walter Scott was also unjustifiably gunned down by South Carolina police officer, Michael Slager. He shot Scott in the back 8 times while he was running away. Slager initially claimed he acted in self-defence, but a bystander’s mobile phone video, released earlier this week, left little room for interpretation and he was charged with murder. It’s true the two incidents differ substantially – at the very least, Bates didn’t forget his manners – yet, Slager’s demeanour in the video and in a an audio recording where he laughs at the fact that his adrenaline is “pumping” is equally matter-of-fact. You could almost picture him defending himself in court with a shrug and a, “Shit happens.”

The stories have many angles; and tacked to the shootings of Michael Brown by a policeman in Ferguson, Missouri, last year or of Trayvon Martin in Miami, Florida, by a neighbourhood watch volunteer gone rogue back in 2012, they can speak of racial bias, police brutality, or the unsuitability of civilian volunteers playing policemen. One angle that has been downplayed by the media – probably because the others provided something a bit more piquant (#BlackLives Matter #HandsUpDontShoot #FuckYourBreath) and a tad less “God, this again?” Or maybe it was just because the body count wasn’t high enough – is gun violence and the lax controls that are still in place owing to an almighty gun lobby whose advocates would defend “the right to bear arms” over their dead and (statistically probable*) bullet-ridden bodies.

BulletBlocker Backpack Ad

BulletBlocker Backpack Ad: “Your child’s safety; your peace of mind is our business.”

The numbers are overwhelming and speak for themselves. An average year will see 33,000 Americans killed by a gun, while 80,000 are injured, according to an investigation on the cost of gun violence published by Mother Jones this month. In a country where anyone above 18 can walk into a local Walmart, pick up a shotgun or rifle (you have to wait until you reach a more mature 21 for a handgun)** and walk out, that’s hardly surprising. If you fear that an intruder breaking into your home would have a gun, you might consider buying one to even the playing field. Your fear might even drive you to shoot the intruder (gun in hand or not) or someone else you thought might be an intruder (think Oscar Pistorius). And, if you’re a cop who knows full well any offender might be concealing a weapon, instinct would likely have you reaching for your gun and shooting first instead of finding out what might happen if you waited. Guns require minimal skill and allow you to keep a comfortable distance from anyone you view as a threat. In Slager’s case, they even save you the trouble of running.

But when it comes to tightening gun control, the US seems to be reliving what the 80s and 90s were for tobacco regulation, with such ideological gems as, “Guns don’t kill people, people do,” steering the debate. So, indeed, here the US is: with its nervous parents buying bulletproof backpacks for their kids and the standard reaction to shooting someone evolving to, “I’m sorry man, I shot you. My bad.”

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* If death is not related to a medical condition, unintentional poisoning, a motor-vehicle accident, or unintentional fall. Sources: CDC Leading Causes of Death by Age Group 2013 and CDC Leading Causes of Injury Deaths Highlighting Unintentional Injury 2013

** “Does a customer have to be a certain age to buy firearms or ammunition from a licensee? Yes. Under the GCA, long guns and long gun ammunition may be sold only to persons 18 years of age or older. Sales of handguns and ammunition for handguns are limited to persons 21 years of age and older. Although some State and local ordinances have lower age requirements, dealers are bound by the minimum age requirements established by the GCA. If State law or local ordinances establish a higher minimum age, the dealer must observe the higher age requirement.”

When Cecil Rhodes came tumbling down, or a story of South African identity crisis

Rarely does a story begin with the throwing of human excrement. So, when University of Cape Town student, Manxwele Chumani, decided to throw faeces one fine March day at the bronze statue of Cecil Rhodes, he probably guessed it would make the gossip rounds on campus. His imagination might not have taken him as far as sparking a national debate – even less so, making international headlines. Maybe it was the human excrement, and not the more acceptable animal variety, which made this act such a noteworthy event for the media. Like fellow student and Rhodes Must Fall movement leader, Kgotsi Chikane, pointed out: “I don’t even know where [one] would begin to go to collect human feces [sic.]”  Where indeed.

"Statue of Cecil John Rhodes at UCT (5829551829)" by Ian Barbour from Cape Town, South Africa - Statue of Cecil John Rhodes at UCT. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Statue_of_Cecil_John_Rhodes_at_UCT_(5829551829).jpg#/media/File:Statue_of_Cecil_John_Rhodes_at_UCT_(5829551829).jpg

Statue of Cecil John Rhodes at University of Cape Town. Photo by Ian Barbour.

To briefly recap: Manxwele’s soiling of the statue gave rise to the “Rhodes Must Fall” student movement which – adopting the one-size-fits-all protest gesture of taping mouths shut – demanded its removal from campus. The offence? Rhodes, true to his Victorian roots, was not a very unprejudiced nor a warmhearted fellow. As a mining magnate, he used his influence and insatiability for minerals to expand the British Empire in Africa, and held the combined virtues of colonialism and capitalism in a particular high regard. Of the English, he once expressed: “I contend that we are the finest race in the world and that the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race.”* This quote could stand on its own quite nicely, but PR people didn’t have a prominent role back in the 1800s, so here’s the rest of it: “Just fancy those parts that are at present inhabited by the most despicable specimens of human beings what an alteration there would be if they were brought under Anglo-Saxon influence, look again at the extra employment a new country added to our dominions gives.”

Given Rhodes’ exploits and philosophy, it isn’t hard to understand why students calling for the statue’s removal declared it a disgrace to celebrate “white structure” through the icons of black African oppressors – a symbol they cannot and do not wish to relate to – and that they have asked for a wider transformation within the university that moves away from Eurocentrism to a pan-African identity.

Since March, the movement has gone off-campus and expanded to call for the ousting of all monuments paying tribute to white figures from South Africa’s colonial and apartheid history. King George V, Afrikaans president Paul Kruger and prime minister Louis Botha, a Boer War Memorial and the distant hand of British Imperialism itself, Queen Victoria, have now joined the ranks of the defaced. Thankfully, human excrement was only saved for Rhodes himself, but the paint and fire used in subsequent vandalisations were nonetheless effective.

If we were to take down the monuments in the embodiment or memory of historical figures who subjected their own people or another race to some version of inhumanity, many of the artefacts that well-paying tourists have come to know and love would cease to exist. At least Europe would practically be stripped bare. We can’t just choose to commemorate the heroic freedom fighters of history. Or so the argument goes for those disapproving of the protests (which presumably also includes the handful of Afrikaners who chained themselves to a statue crying cultural genocide). Yet it does seem odd saying that when the Germans and Italians and French chose not to erect prominent landmarks commemorating Hitler or Mussolini or Maréchal Pétain, and Hungarians and Iraqis famously tore down statues of Stalin and Saddam Hussein (respectively). Their decision doesn’t necessarily denote a selective memory of history, as much as a heedful remembering of it constrained to museums and text books.

"Negative Result" - Zapiro cartoon

“Negative Result”. President Jacob Zuma depicted by South African Cartoonist Zapiro.

Despite the Rhodes statue posing quite a conundrum for the University of Cape Town’s Council (whatever Rhodes was, his estate bequeathed the land on which the university stands and continues to sponsor the renowned Rhodes scholarship), it sided with the students and the statue was removed this week, with the university also accepting to expedite other aspects of transformation. UCT students can claim victory: a hundred odd years after Rhodes’ death, he is now accounting for – if not his crimes against humanity – the continued influence his legacy still bears. So there’s hope that, maybe by 2120, current South African leaders could too be held accountable in some minor way for unfettered corruption, for policies hindering press freedom, or for philosophical statements on the HIV-fending power of showering. Better late than never.

* Cecil Rhodes, “Confession of Faith” (1877): http://www.pitt.edu/~syd/rhod.html

French freedom of expression: anything goes…as long as it doesn’t lead to an affair?

This might be considered old news in France, but as international papers just recently picked it up (blame the lag in translation) and it involves an ongoing story, this week’s Pick of the Press looks at extramarital dating website, Gleeden.

In France, Gleeden and its bitten-apple logo have achieved household status thanks to an extensive ad campaign, splashed across city buses and metro stations, which unabashedly promotes the virtues of having an affair. One billboard calls on victims of unhappy marriages to look at an affair as some twisted form of patriotic duty by helpfully pointing out that taking a lover costs less to social security than anti-depressants. Another opts for a more visual message and simply shows a bride crossing her fingers behind her back. 

Gleeden ad

Made by women (mainly) for married women, the website has come under fire from the French Catholic Family Association, which views the dating site as a moral scourge – a threat to the social fibre holding together traditional family values – as though infidelity were a newly-hatched concept in the French Republic. In February, it filed a legal complaint against Gleeden and its American publisher, Black Divine, in a Paris superior court, claiming the website facilitates adultery and, as a result, wilfully breaches an article of the civil code that states spouses owe one another mutual respect, fidelity, and support. Moreover, by facilitating the adulterer, the CFA says Gleeden helps to “publicly promote duplicity, lying, and the violation of the law”.

If your beliefs are more liberally-inclined, it’s a bit horrifying aligning yourself (even remotely) with the thinking of one of the principal partner organisations of the French anti-gay marriage movement. Yet Gleeden’s message and mission don’t necessarily sit well even with those of us who don’t staunchly believe in the institution of marriage or its religious association. Its ads make having an affair seem simultaneously thrilling and – with a reported 2.5 million members – blasé.

No problem, if this was in the context of an open marriage or relationship. That not being the case, Gleeden’s business model aims to open the door as wide as possible for married women to cheat without any consideration made for the poor sob being cuckolded.  A spokeswoman, one (let’s go with Ms.) Solène Paillet who spoke with The New York Times, takes this a step further, proclaiming that the website is “a form of justice since Frenchwomen ha[ve] suffered the indignity of cheating men for centuries while historically bearing the brunt of punishments for infidelity”. In her own words, Gleeden’s all-female creative team “want[s] to give women a means to cheat on their husbands and to be sexually independent”. Vive la France et le féminisme ! The only chink in her glorious quest to add to female independence is that the site also caters to their husbands.

Even so, with affairs having been decriminalised in France back in 1975, the Catholic Family Association’s legal complaint is clutching at straws. By its logic, any hotel clerk who gave a room key to a married Dominique Strauss-Kahn should be sued for violating the civil code. What’s more, by asking transport authorities to ban the ads (some of whom have acquiesced), the CFA is obstructing freedom of expression: itself a pillar of the French constitution.

Then again, you could forgive the CFA for confusing what does and does not constitute freedom of expression these days. When the 12 members of the satirical weekly, Charlie Hebdo, were gunned down in January for depicting the Prophet Mohammed, French leaders linked arms with government representatives of* Russia (intimidator/alleged terminator of independent journalists and opposition members), Egypt (world-renowned prosecutor of journalists), and Saudi Arabia (medieval punisher of pro-democracy citizens), among others, to march against terrorism and in support of press freedom. Two days later, controversial French comedian, Dieudonné M’bala M’bala, was arrested for posting a comment on Facebook that voiced sympathy for the gunman and hostage taker, Amedy Coulibaly. All things considered, the CFA might want to think of widening its legal complaint against those “publicly promoting duplicity” beyond the scope of Gleeden.

* In order of declining position on Reporters Without Borders’ 2015 Press Freedom Index

Yet another Greek tragedy? When Greece’s ministers hijacked their own agenda

Picture this scenario: You greet a charismatic-looking man for the first time. One who is revered in his field and (you’ve been told) knows what he’s talking about. You’re interested in hearing his proposal – maybe even open to a possible investment. Seated face-to-face, you nod in encouragement as your guest begins by counting the advantages of his plan on his right-hand; at the same time his left reaches down to his crotch. It’s a single swift motion – so quick it’s over before you’ve properly registered what happened.

Considerately, you brush it off and try get back to the conversation when it happens again. Now you can’t help doubt whether he’s aware of what he’s doing. In between sound bites and a conscious effort to keep your eyes above his waist, you engage in an internal interrogation: “Is this considered normal where he comes from?” “Did he see me notice?” Which then turns to the more elaborate: “God, could he have lice?” “An STD?” You might even irrationally contemplate swiping the seat with a Dettol wipe post-meeting, when the silence brings you back to the room. He looks at you inquisitively, “So, do you have any questions?”

Giving into an itch is natural. Reflexive even. That the person in the observer’s seat will shift their focus from what you’re saying to questioning your upbringing and sexual hygiene also boils down to basic human nature. Leaving aside the content of present Greco-European encounters, diplomatic relations between Greece and its lenders have deteriorated because Greece’s new ministers have succeeded in distracting and detracting from their message just as effectively as if they spent their meetings with their hands glued to their crotch.

Sure, one could argue that getting dressed as if you’re going to a bar in Athens on a Friday night when you’re meeting Germany’s Finance Minister in Berlin on a Thursday morning is in keeping with your values (a person whose only concern is the politics at hand and be damned with the gimmick of stiff dress codes!) Indeed, if the reform of etiquette in European politics is the key message the Greek Finance Minister, Yanis Varoufakis, wanted to make then that would surely be the way to go. Unfortunately, believing it shouldn’t have hijacked his political agenda doesn’t seem like it was enough of a safeguard against it actually doing so. If Rafael Nadal were to walk onto Centre Court in July wearing neon red and yellow, the headline wouldn’t be the excellence of his play, but his transformation into an arrogant git for having rebuffed Wimbledon’s white-only rule.

Varoufakis is joined on his counterintuitive path by Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras who, in his resolve to demand Germany pay war reparations to Greece for damages inflicted in World War II, also seems to be suffering a disconnect with common sense. Let’s say the question of reparations is not a petty revenge tactic. Let’s even agree that Greece’s debt restructuring and its campaign for the fulfilment of reparations are 100% separate. Why ignore basic rules of diplomacy and foreground the reparations request at a moment where it will inevitably compromise the validity of both missions? Greece’s current top duo continue to behave as if they’re scratching their balls in their interactions with Europe’s political elite. What remains a mystery is why they think there’s an itch in the first place.