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Opinion Column
For the week of November 8 through 14, 2000

Learning from past (and others’) mistakes, or not

Express Staff Writer

Several days ago (Oct. 28, to be precise) two unremarkable, unrelated events coincided to serve as a reminder that learning is an endless process, though, in some cases, it appears beginningless.

A friend sent me an e-mail with the remembrance that on Oct. 28, 1919, the Volstead Act was passed by the Congress of the United States. He added a personal note to the effect that our society doesn’t seem to have learned much from the debacle that ensued from that misguided piece of legislation. I completely agree.

And I finished my annual reading of "Accidents in North American Mountaineering." I consider this yearly publication required reading for every climber, practical reading for anyone who ventures into the mountains further than a hundred yards from a paved road, and recommended reading for all those interested in the boundless drama and folly of the human condition. It is reading for those who appreciate learning from the past and from the mistakes of others.

The Volstead Act is better known in our culture as "Prohibition," the intemperate experiment in temperance that failed to create a more perfect society, but succeeded in making criminals out of millions of non-criminal members of that society. It was also successful in giving the Mafia its first stronghold in the economic fabric of America. Prohibition, of course, was completely unsuccessful in keeping those American citizens who wanted to drink alcohol from doing so, though, it was the genesis of several large American fortunes, most notably and influentially that of Joseph Kennedy.

Prohibition was a monumental, ruinous failure. Except in the fantasy minds of people who have confused humanity with some sanitized, idealized creature who does not exist and never did, and, naturally, in the opportunistic dishonesty of those who in one way or another made a living from that fantasy, there was never the slightest chance that Prohibition would succeed. The Volstead Act was foolish and nave at best, cynical on the part of most who supported it, evil at worst.

Today’s "war on drugs" is our government’s modern version of Prohibition, and it is just as foolish, cynical and evil. Like the Volstead Act did 80 years ago, the war on drugs will continue to dishonor the concept of a more perfect society, as it will fail to stop people from indulging in the drugs of their choice. It will persist in making criminals out of hundreds of thousands of non-criminal members of our society. The legal drugs of alcohol and tobacco continue to kill more people and destroy more lives than all "illegal" drugs combined; but, as our society had every opportunity to learn but did not, attempting to prohibit them compounds rather than alleviates the problem. The war on other drugs since the Volstead Act was repealed has been a blessing to the Mafia and other organized (and, in some cases, not so organized) criminals. And in recent years it has created an entire sector of commerce in drug war weaponry and warriors, particularly in North America, South America (especially Columbia, Peru and Ecuador), Southeast Asia, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. It has destabilized governments and brought far more death, destruction, misery and human wreckage to the world than have the drugs in question.

The war on drugs has created a prison (and prison guard) industry in America that is out of control and largely out of sight of the general populace. But it is paid for out of your pockets with money that could be used for education, health, housing, wilderness protection, environmental clean up, political campaign finance reforms, subsidies for small farmers and businesses, and many other things a healthy society needs instead of increased prisons. In excess of 2 million Americans are in prison right now, and more than half of those prisoners are in jail because of drug related "crimes." Only a small minority of these prisoners of the war on drugs share the ethnicity and demographics of the citizenry of the Wood River Valley, but this is not a reflection of the ethnicity and demographics of drug use and abuse in our society.

Prohibition did not work in the 1920s. That our society believes the war on drugs will work now is an indication of the beginningless process of a flat learning curve.

I am reminded of a couple of the analyses of the various incidents reported in this year’s "Accidents in North American Mountaineering": "The probability of staying healthy on the Columbia Icefields in bad weather with no bivouac gear is considerably reduced when alone." And "Poor weather, heavy snowfalls, and whiteout conditions are the primary contributing causes of this mishap. The subjects lacked the judgment to turn back when the weather deteriorated, and did not plan for white-out navigation….It is very easy to get lost on the upper mountain, due to the featureless nature of the terrain."

"The subjects" of these mountaineering accidents sound to me like the warriors in the war on drugs.


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