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David Simon on the War on Drugs and the NSA Revelations

Updated: Aug 30, 2023

Last week two prominent critics of the War on Drugs independently declared that their years spent witnessing the civil liberties abuses involved in enforcing drug policy left them largely unmoved by the exposure of the National Security Agency’s comprehensive, only secretly and ambiguously legal, telecom monitoring program.

David Simon and John Stossel are the most unlikely of proverbial bedfellows and, when it comes down to their actual positions, they are not really sharing a bed at all. Stossel is a libertarian who has never met a government program he couldn’t mock in the exasperated, contemptuous style he developed on ABC’s 20/20 and now plies for Fox News. He opened his piece in Reason last week with familiar rhetoric about the ways “politicians abuse us.” Simon is a former newspaper reporter and the creator of Homicide, The Corner, and most famously, The Wire. Essentially a voice of the left, in his blog entry Simon made it clear how he feels about “libertarian selfishness,” in which “there’s never an act of communal sacrifice or societal aspiration that rises above the requisite contempt for collective governance and shared responsibility.”

Two different kinds of reporters.

Two different kinds of reporters.

Simon’s post went much deeper than Stossel’s column, which argued mainly that the  dangers of drugs have been exaggerated. Simon blasted through the struggle that some NSA critics have had marrying world-weariness (of course they’ve been spying on us) and anger by diagnosing instead full-blown myopia on the left. The basic legal and practical framework for telecom snooping has been in place for decades, he contends. It was established not in what we knew about the Bush Administration’s War on Terror, but in the wiretaps and home-raids of the war on drugs. Its abuses are not in some imagined future dystopia, but have been in plain sight, affecting real people.

If I sound exasperated with other liberal voices on this issue it’s because their barricades are in the wrong place, facing the wrong way, defending the wrong moral and legal terrain.  Thus far, the sum of liberal argument against the NSA program amounts to a Maginot Line of legal ignorance, borrowed libertarian selfishness and positive proof that those who fear a civil liberties apocalypse and wish to fight against such were decades late to the fields where those battles actually rage.  Shit, they’re still not in the right place.

Simon is not, he insists in the comments, suggesting that if we have tacitly accepted civil liberties violations in the drug war then we must accept them in other areas or even in wholesale form. Instead he is arguing – perhaps more controversially – that while the NSA program may seem more pervasive than anti-drug law enforcement, it in fact is both tied to a more legitimate purpose (anti-terror) and has been conducted much less invasively than the war on drugs. If we are worried about the principle it establishes, the precedent it sets, and the potential for future abuses of such power – well, those ships sailed long ago, Simon avers.

the left has once again picked the wrong battle, and done so with its usual precision. For starters, the arguments of those opposed to this NSA program make not a dent against the practical application of the data, the legal precedent for such, or the stated goals of this particular program for a societal good. That’s always a problem, regardless of how many terrifying authoritarian nightmares can be conjured off-stage. … And yet maybe the right to not have your phone data — a class of information without constitutional protection for decades now — dumped anonymously on the floor with 300 million other Americans  so that our government might route suspect numbers through that haystack, maybe that isn’t such an essential liberty that’s being traded after all.  Maybe the essential liberties are being traded elsewhere, in places where few liberals and libertarians deign to fight.

Those places include the homes of the poor.

For decades now, I’ve seen the aftermath of botched drug raids; early morning mayhem in which police, using mauls and wearing body armor, smash through the front doors of ghetto homes, guns drawn, shouting for sleeping residents to drop to the ground.  I’ve seen raids of sixteen or eighteen addresses come up empty for drugs and weapons at more than half of those locations. And of course, I’ve seen raiding officers drop a copy of the signed, documented and perfectly legal probable cause on the rowhouse floor, gather equipment, and walk out of homes from which they recovered no evidence of criminality. “Are you gonna fix my door?” is always a stunned resident’s first question. “You need to call the city for that,” is always the ready, ambiguous reply. What poor and working-class communities routinely endure within the very constitutional construct of our drug war makes the wails of indignation over this NSA data-mining astonishing and embarrassing to me.
Drug raids: trampling crocuses and civil liberties since before Edward Snowden was born.

Drug raids: trampling crocuses and civil liberties since before Edward Snowden was born.

Simon’s rhetoric is hot, responding as he is to critics of his initial observations who lumped him in with those who would seem to defend established power at all costs. There there is more than a whiff of “where the hell have you people been for 40 years” in his rhetoric, as well as a heavy dose of “now that white elites can imagine themselves as targets, suddenly wiretaps are a crisis.” His post’s title, “The ‘Nigger Wake-up Call,'” is an allusion to black political humorist Paul Mooney‘s name for the moment when white people become conscious of something that has been directly affecting black people for years. Another recent post of Simon’s dwelt on the danger that pot legalization will cause middle-class whites to abandon the larger cause of drug law reform.

I don’t know enough about the law to say how closely the actual legal principles that prop up the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) and the court system that oversees its domestic operations are related to precedents established in the war on drugs. But I do know about Simon’s influence in the realm of culture, and especially in creating a new popular understanding of the war on drugs. His position is deeply grounded and not easily pigeonholed. Does it even suggest a kernel of intuitive wisdom in the apathy — or better, world-weariness — exhibited by so many Americans on the NSA issue?

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