Several politicians have vaunted a muscular but myopic plan for dealing with the fentanyl crisis: to eliminate sources of the drug near the U.S.-Mexico border through the use of military force. The fentanyl crisis is being portrayed as an international conflict, not a failure of domestic policy, but a problem entirely caused by the evil members of Mexican cartels who, it is being claimed, deserve to die, along with, apparently, anyone who happens to be at their side. But even assuming, against an abundance of evidence from history, that the deployment of military force would have any effect beyond persuading traffickers to move their operations elsewhere, the proposal to whack anyone at the border who appears to be involved in the illegal drug trade threatens the most basic principles at the heart of what remains of the U.S. republic.
As in the U.S. drone program deployed so ruthlessly against thousands of tribesmen throughout the Middle East, the proposed plan to summarily execute suspected fentanyl dealers assumes that they are guilty and that the presumption of innocence is a “quaint” notion which can and should be inverted when it comes to matters of national defense. Presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy has observed that more than thirty times more Americans now die of overdose deaths each year than died on September 11, 2001. From this he infers, fallaciously, that the use of military force has become necessary in order to stem the tide of the crisis. Apparently unaware or unconcerned that the Global War on Terror culminated in the deaths of many thousands more innocent people than died on 9/11, Ramaswamy sophistically suggests that because the sheer magnitude of overdose victims within the United States is so high, this implies that it is time for yet another war.
For what should be obvious reasons, government leaders love to paint every new problem as necessitating a new war. Among other things, calling something a “war” opens up the possibility of endless emergency measures and executive powers permitting the president to circumvent the legislature altogether and enact whichever laws he prefers. At the same time, widespread propaganda campaigns are used during wartime to secure the support and the obedience of the populace under the assumption that “You’re either with us, or you’re against us.” Sound familiar? It should.
Such dynamics are fresh memories in the minds of many people because we only recently witnessed and survived the “War on COVID-19,” which, like every other recent U.S. war, left only a crime scene in its wake. No matter, politicians are calling for a new War on Drugs, a “War on Fentanyl,” which implies, among other things, that “collateral damage” will be unavoidable. This is taken by war supporters to follow from the platitudes that “What must be done must be done!” and, in wartime, “Stuff happens.” The tactical parallels with 9/11 and the COVID-19 crisis are telling as well. People were so traumatized by what happened on September 11, 2001, that they agreed to anything the government proposed in order to protect themselves and their loved ones from the possibility of further terrorist acts. Likewise, having been propagandized to believe that everyone was in serious danger of death by virus, much of the populace agreed to severe limitations on their liberty, and some went even so far as to call for the injection of an experimental substance into the bodies of people who declined voluntarily to roll up their sleeves.
Self-proclaimed “libertarian-leaning” Ramaswamy says, on the one hand, that, as president, he will eliminate the Deep State, deleting entire departments of an undeniably bloated federal government. Unfortunately, however, his disdain for the bureaucratic state does not extend to the minimalist form of government better known as tyranny, wherein a single leader, the only remaining office holder, replaces the legislative branch of government and asserts his own power to issue executive orders binding on the people of the land. Ramaswamy’s populist rhetoric notwithstanding, by asserting the right to kill persons designated by himself as enemies of the state who are guilty of capital crimes, he would be appointing himself the king.
Why draw the line at the persons who contribute to the overdose deaths caused by fentanyl? Applied consistently, Ramaswamy’s plan would seem to imply that the prime movers of the opioid crisis, members of the Sackler family, in addition to all employees of Purdue Pharma and, indeed, all of the many other pharmaceutical industry profiteers who helped to promote the use of narcotics deceptively labeled “nonaddictive” and “less subject to abuse” should be eliminated, too. To offer only one of many lesser-known examples, Johnson & Johnson cultivated massive poppy fields in Tasmania to be able to meet the growing demand of prescription opiates as the crisis developed and doctors all over the country were tutored, with the support of government agencies such as the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) that patients with “pseudo-addiction” and “breakthrough pain” needed even higher doses of narcotics. Off with their heads!
The reason why neither pharmaceutical industry fraud nor illegal drug dealing is, under current law, a capital offense in the United States of America is that the persons engaged in the practice are not intentionally and premeditatedly terminating the lives of human beings; they are attempting to enrich themselves through selling a product. Just as executives in the pharmaceutical industry profited handsomely by selling billions of narcotics pills without regard to the likely outcome of their unscrupulous marketing practices, the persons who now, in the aftermath of the Oxycontin fiasco, sell fentanyl to persons who may die from ingesting it do not intend to kill them. Indeed, killing a customer would serve only to diminish the dealer’s future profits. In other words, if such persons were indicted on capital charges of first-degree murder for what became the victims of fentanyl overdose, they could never be found guilty of that crime, given the clear absence of the required intention for conviction beyond a reasonable doubt. Negligent homicide and manslaughter could be demonstrated of drug dealers in a court of law when their customers overdosed, but never first-degree murder, for which the death penalty is in some, not all, states applied.
Ironically, however, the intentional and premeditated killing of human beings is precisely what Ramaswamy and others are claiming the authority to exact, all in the name of combating the new “evil enemy” in the “War on Fentanyl.” The reasoning behind this initiative is supposed to be that the circumstances are so dire that, in fact, everything has become permissible. Faced with this emergency, even the execution of suspects without trial, along with anyone who happens to be in their immediate vicinity, has become necessary. The tried-and-true propaganda line, used in drumming up support for every new war, is that because the very existence of our community is at stake, we must act swiftly and with great determination to vanquish the enemy whose actions will otherwise destroy us. If we do not take up arms, war supporters insist, then the outcome of the conflict will be intolerable.
A sober look at the annals of history impugns the pre-war rationalizations so successfully disseminated by the media to garner popular support for military intervention. With the benefit of hindsight, it eventually emerges that the so-called necessity of this or that objective never proved to have been truly necessary, for the originally stated objectives, used to rationalize the mobilization of the war machine, are nearly never achieved. Obviously, in the case of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Saddam Hussein had no WMD, and so none were ever wrested from his control. But other allegedly necessary wars illustrate the very same point.
In the case of Afghanistan, for example, it was continually drilled by the state-managed media into U.S. citizens’ minds that we needed to democratize Afghanistan—and support women’s rights, at the same time! Policymakers spent trillions of dollars and directly harmed millions of human beings throughout the Global War on Terror, and what, precisely, was achieved? Afghanistan is being run once again by the Taliban (who now refer to themselves as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan), armed to the teeth with the matériel left behind by the U.S. military and its tentacular web of mercenary contractors. Meanwhile, the women of the land are back to where they were before, regarded as lower-class members of their society and denied many of the rights enjoyed by men. All of this to say: it is not the case that the twenty-year war was necessary for the democratization of Afghanistan and the liberation of its women, for neither of these objectives was achieved.
The notorious War on Drugs perpetrated on the people of Colombia for years, in an effort to diminish the use of cocaine in the United States, had as its outcome that the cartels became far more violent—indeed, militarized—than they had been before. Rather than shutter their stores, the cartels simply relocated, spreading to other countries as well, in order to be able to continue to ply their trade. The initiative was an abject failure: the use of cocaine in the United States reached much higher levels than before, as a direct result of the “War on Drugs.”
Similarly, in 2001, the radical jihadists on this planet numbered in the dozens. In the two decades to follow, the U.S. invasions, and the use of torture, extraordinary rendition, and summary execution throughout the Middle East, created thousands more radical jihadists, in countries all over the world. The only persons who benefited from this proliferation of terrorism, through what is perhaps best characterized as a “hydra” effect, were war profiteers, including not only companies which produce missiles and drones, but also private military companies (PMCs) which help to analyze data and generate hit lists.
The proposal to characterize those working for and with Mexican drug cartels as “terrorists” to be dealt with as are persons identified as “jihadists” throughout the Middle East and Africa, opens up a whole new market niche for the technokillers. Consequently, everyone who profits from the remote-control killing industry—whether directly or indirectly, as subcontractors or stockholders—can be expected to support the new “War on Fentanyl.” Virtually endless numbers of names will be added to hit lists as the cell phone data of suspects is swept up and analyzed.
We already know how these slippery slopes work, because we witnessed what happened throughout the Global War on Terror. From “We must get Osama bin Laden and his associates!” to “We must get anyone who acts like Osama bin Laden and his associates!” to “We must get anyone who expresses sympathy with Osama bin Laden and his associates!” At some point, simply appearing to be possibly dangerous, even exhibiting hostile attitudes toward the U.S. military, and daring to object to the brutal “War on Terror,” came to be perversely decreed by the drone warriors as the grounds for summary execution of dissidents. People who never wielded violence were destroyed for having financial connections to factional terrorists or for seeming to support them in some way, for example, by agreeing with the jihadists’ overt denunciation of the comportment of the U.S. military state or even questioning whether the people being incinerated were in fact guilty of any crimes. “You oppose the illegal invasion of your land by the U.S. military? Clearly you’re a terrorist!”
The killing machine in the new “War on Fentanyl” would similarly be given the green light by the president to eliminate anyone who fits the latest edition of the “dispositional matrix” used as the basis for executing thousands of young men of color who resembled stereotypical jihadists. Barack Obama, the first black U.S. president, championed the use of lethal drones under the delusive belief that he was a “smart warrior.” Ironically, Obama himself ushered in an era of racial profiling, where people in lands far away were effectively subjected to the moral equivalent of lynching without warning, much less indictment or trial, for walking, talking, and above all, looking like terrorists.
Guilt by association was used as the pretext for killing thousands of people using lethal drones throughout the Middle East, and we can expect the same indiscriminate application of deadly force under a rationalization of supposed wartime necessity to be applied in pursuing the manufacturers and distributors of fentanyl. With people dying of drug overdoses at shocking rates in the United States, the not-so-smart warriors are preparing to launch missiles against everyone who appears to be fueling the crisis. But anyone who has been paying attention to what is happening at the southern border must be aware that smuggling fentanyl into the country is easier than ever before, particularly in view of the extreme potency of the drug. If fentanyl is fifty times stronger than heroin, then smuggling in a kilo of the former is like smuggling in fifty kilos of the latter. We have known for decades many of the ingenious ways in which drugs are transported into the country. The solution to this problem cannot simply be to summarily execute every hapless person attempting to ford the border with a stuffed animal in tow.
For if the flow of these drugs cannot be stopped because it is remarkably easy to slip them into legal shipments or to camouflage them as teddy bears and pillows, then how in the world can the solution to this problem be to whack the people who are attempting to transport drugs over the border? We know from the Global War on Terror the ghastly answer to this question: once the presumption of innocence has been inverted to a presumption of guilt, then everyone holding a teddy bear, indeed, every person with bodily cavities possibly filled with balloons of drugs, can be viewed as “fair game,” as the now dead targets of missile strikes were characterized throughout the Global War on Terror.
The presumption of innocence is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and is a principle essential to the court systems in all functioning democracies. Nevertheless, since 2001, all presidents of the United States have asserted their right to eliminate suspects without warning, indictment, or trial, because they viewed the “emergency” of terrorism as outweighing all other considerations. That the summary execution of unarmed soldiers also violates longstanding principles governing the proper conduct of a war has been altogether ignored by every president throughout the seemingly endless Global War on Terror.
President Obama opted to kill rather than capture suspected terrorists, and by radically expanding the use of lethal drones outside areas of active hostilities over his two terms in office, he succeeded in normalizing the practice of summary execution. He authorized the targeted killing of thousands of men in the prime of their lives, often in their own civil societies, because a small committee of analysts, including the president himself, had come to the conclusion, on the basis of purely circumstantial evidence, that the suspects might possibly, at some unspecified point in the future, attempt to harm the people of the United States. The fact that most of the targets were destitute tribesmen with no feasible means of ever making it to U.S. shores, even if they reviled the U.S. government, was not considered a mitigating factor before they were terminated with extreme prejudice and classified as terrorists post mortem. Even U.S. citizens were singled out for assassination by this killing machine.
We know from the revelations of drone program whistleblower Daniel Hale that the U.S. government characterizes every person successfully targeted by a missile as an “Enemy Killed in Action,” or EKIA, unless specific evidence is brought forth to demonstrate his innocence. Persons in the Middle East targeted as suspected terrorists were never provided with the opportunity to defend themselves against allegations that they deserved to die. By deploying what has become the U.S. military’s standard operating procedure, i.e., extrajudicial execution, to suspected fentanyl smugglers, the same denial of human rights would be expanded to include all targets labeled terrorists, on whatever basis the current inhabitant of the White House decrees.
Not only Republican presidential hopeful Vivek Ramaswamy but also Ron DeSantis (among others) has been drumming up support for the use of lethal drones very close to home. DeSantis, who takes pride in his military service in Fallujah, also delights in pronouncing that, if he is elected president, then persons involved in the fentanyl trade will be “stone cold dead.” It is a sad testament to the value of a Harvard Law School degree that neither Barack Obama nor Ron DeSantis (both HLS alumni) grasps what is arguably the most basic principle of jurisprudence: the presumption of innocence.
There is no denying that the zombies on display in many metropolitan areas of the United States are largely a result of the synthetic drug crisis, not only fentanyl, but also methamphetamine and “Spice,” an extraordinarily powerful synthetic drug being sold as marijuana to buyers, whether wittingly or not. In the face of this new crisis, the usual mob of frightened and angry, torch-waving people are rallying behind drastic, anti-republican initiatives without thinking through what they imply. Such policy proposals pander directly to the populace, understandably disturbed as they are by the spiraling addiction and overdose crisis, including the attendant degradation in the quality of urban life. But any candidate who claims that, as president, he will assume the authority to kill anyone he wants, anywhere he likes, on whatever evidential basis he happens to regard as sufficient, displays his open scorn for republican principles. Any leader who implements a policy of summary execution without indictment or trial of suspected drug traffickers would be appointing himself a monarch with the power singlehandedly to decree the laws of the land, in fact, of two lands: both the United States and Mexico.
The tactical problem here is not only a failure to recognize that demand created supply, which in turn has created more demand as the drugs have flooded U.S. streets, where even more addicts are created. The problem with the proposed whack-a-mole solution to the crisis is a fundamental problem of logic. First, if it were known who was smuggling the drugs in, then they could be stopped at the border. Ron DeSantis and others who exuberantly boast that those who contribute to the fentanyl crisis will be “stone cold dead” are assuming that somehow the identity of smugglers will be clarified by the smoldering emanations of their ashes upon incineration by a missile launched from a drone. Why should that be the case? Only because once a missile is launched, anyone killed by the government is effectively convicted through state execution of the crime of which he has been suspected by groups of analysts behind closed doors.
“Stone cold dead” is some pretty tough-sounding talk, but it is befitting of a mafia boss, not the president of a nation governed by the liberal principles enshrined by democracies in their constitutions. Republics such as that of the United States emerged in efforts to reject monarchic rule and, above all, tyranny. This dangerous use of demagoguery and pseudo-populist rhetoric must be recognized for what it is: a call for unlimited executive powers for the president. To deploy lethal drones at the border would be not only the initiation of an aggressive war against the sovereign state of Mexico but also a flagrant assault on what remains of the U.S. republic.