Monday, February 9, 2009

Michael Phelps and the Violence in Mexico: Connect the Dots

Recently my parents in El Paso, Texas called me and recounted another series of decapitations in Juárez, Mexico, their hometown, a place that has become a no-man's land of murder and mayhem. Drug cartels battle the Mexican government mano-a-mano, with thousands dead. Meanwhile, Michael Phelps is pictured inhaling from a bong in South Carolina, Whoopi Goldberg proudly admits, to audience cheers, that she has smoked weed and demands that we leave Phelps alone, and the Daily Show's Jon Stewart jokes repeatedly about bongs and marijuana, making it oh-so-cool to light up. I wonder if anyone will ever connect the dots.

The United States has one of the highest percentages of pot smokers in the world, and our popular culture winks at drug use and even glorifies it. Meanwhile, marijuana is the most important cash crop for Mexican drug cartels, and Mexicans die because of our voracious appetite for drugs. I am waiting for Lou Dobbs to do one hundred shows on America's responsibility for the murderous disaster in Mexico; I am waiting for Campbell Brown to do a series on how our red, white, and blue practices, like our drug use, cripple Third World countries. Wealthy America has a bong party, but the poor outside our borders pay for it, in blood. On our direct responsibility for the violence in Mexico, the United States is all bias, all bull.

I have no love for the often corrupt Mexican government. I have no love for a society that seems permanently stratified to engorge the richest of the rich while the best hope for the poor is often to cross to el otro lado. Indeed, my parents' founding myth, why they left Juárez in the 1950's to become American citizens, is about the lack of economic opportunities in Mexico, the need to pay bosses to get and keep a job, and my mother's still fervent American idealism.

We just finished getting rid of an American president who seemed to lack any instinct for self-reflection and adaptation to the circumstances, but did this malady infect much of the country as well? We are culpable for the violence in Mexico. True, we are not decapitating police officers and kidnapping citizens to intimidate the Mexican government. But America's drug use is why this is happening south of our border. We are the prize. Our money is the prize. We want those drugs, and whoever gets to sell us those drugs wins billions of dollars. What strange mass psychosis allows many in the United States to be shocked shocked about the grisly details in Mexico, while millions of our children inhale?

Recently, the El Paso City Council took up the issue of whether to encourage a national debate to legalize drug use. Just to debate the issue, not to favor legalization. It was a desperation move, in part because those in Washington, D. C. and New York City do not see, across a flimsy border fence, the war zone that has become Juárez. Of course, that stalwart of self-reflection, Lou Dobbs, attacked the city council for encouraging drug use. But that knee-jerk response is symptomatic of our delusion: we rarely have meaningful debates that lead to honest self-reflection about the consequences of what we do when it comes to Mexico.

I do not favor legalizing drugs. I do not favor another war on drugs. I do favor being responsible for what I do. I favor fighting to be critically self-reflective, even when my psyche's instinct is to defend and promote itself at all costs. We as a country have probably the most important invisible hand in the violence in Mexico. Yet we don't readily and repeatedly admit it. As long as we don't, we will never come close to any solution. True, we will have great political theater, and we will lead comfortable, self-satisfied lives about how cool we can be, while reveling in schadenfreude on Mexico. But the United States will have lost many opportunities to avert a future disaster that will assuredly come across our borders to haunt us.