Debating current affairs
Paul Thomas is a Weekend Herald columnist

Paul Thomas: Taking the high ground on drugs and war


Time's now famous cover featuring the Afghani girl whose nose and ears were cut off by the Taleban drew an interesting reader response.

A "tough old guy" wrote in to say it had moved him to tears, and that "these crimes against humanity have to be stopped". Another correspondent dismissed it as emotional blackmail.

The inevitable bathos came from a woman in Boston appalled that her subscription had exposed her small children to such a distressing image.

Yes, all very well for Time to wring its hands over the wretched women of Afghanistan, but what about innocent children in Massachusetts?

It was pointed out that the mutilation occurred despite the American presence, the implication being that the inability to prevent such atrocities reinforces the case for withdrawal.

By that logic we should disband the police force because it hasn't put a stop to burglary.

Some sought the high ground, apparently oblivious to the hollow callousness of their pieties: "The solution to the suppression of women in Afghanistan is not foreign occupation but the irreversible transformation of Afghan governance and societal values."

How exactly will this irreversible transformation take place, given that it increasingly appears as if the presence of foreign troops is the only thing stopping the restoration of Taleban rule? As the Time cover reminded us, the Taleban themselves are rather keen on an irreversible transformation of Afghan governance and societal values, beginning with the suppression of women.

Most would agree with the premise that "America cannot mount crusades to right all the wrongs in the world". Indeed, whenever America deploys the humanitarian argument to justify a military intervention, the question is asked: why there but not here? Why Iraq but not Rwanda? Why Bosnia but not Myanmar? Why Afghanistan but not Zimbabwe?

While it's true that those poor souls trapped in tyrannies off the beaten strategic track shouldn't hold their breath waiting for the Seventh Cavalry to arrive, it's equally true that the all-or-nothing argument is just a mealy-mouthed way of advocating nothing, since all is politically, logistically, and financially impossible.

But whatever was said after the event, the invasion of Afghanistan was not a moral crusade. It was essentially an act of aggressive self-defence - with a strong element of revenge - aimed at destroying the group responsible for 9/11 and the regime which had given it safe haven.

Many argued at the time that the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq were neither sensible nor morally justifiable, but America went ahead anyway.

Secretary of State Colin Powell warned George W. Bush that "you break it, you own it", meaning that you can't just invade a country, bring down the regime, then walk away leaving a trail of destruction and a political vacuum: you have a responsibility to leave it in better shape than you found it.

However all the signs suggest that the US and its allies will fudge that responsibility. The mothers of Massachusetts can relax though: in a few years' time, when the Taleban are hacking off girls' noses with impunity, there won't be any photographers around to record it.

There was also an interesting - and large - reader response to last week's column on the case for decriminalising drugs. Many were in favour; some emphatically were not. A particularly vociferous opponent asked: "How many people take caffeine and/or paracetamol now? Why wouldn't they simply upgrade to hard drugs? What happens to society when 80 per cent are on hard drugs?"

For a start all those coffee mornings in Remuera and Parnell will be very different affairs. Call me naive but I'd like to think most of my fellow citizens are slightly more discerning than laboratory rats.

The same correspondent argued that since "we are already tacitly decriminalised, there's minimal point in changing the system". In other words, let's keep on having the worst of both worlds: de facto legalisation which stimulates demand and legal prohibition which hands over a massively profitable industry to the worst elements in society.

"Hey, let's legalise murder," suggested one ironist. "Its prohibition hasn't worked." The nature of murder is that someone who doesn't want to die winds up dead, so it's hard to categorise it as a victimless crime on a par with, say, smoking a joint in the privacy of your own home.

Another prohibitionist called decriminalisation dumb: "If something is harmful to people, making it legal is plain stupid."

If public health is the overriding imperative, why stop at drugs? Why not ban alcohol, tobacco, fast food, mountaineering, cars, going outside to be exposed to the sun's harmful rays, and remaining inside since, as we're always being told, most accidents happen at home?

And while we're at it, let's reintroduce the law against suicide.

- NZ Herald

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