Throttle the hyperbole

One of the dangers of governance is ringing declarations —usually by posturing politicians—of sweeping assertions that sound indisputable.

“[W]e shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty,” said John Kennedy in language that led the U.S. straight into Vietnam. A foreign policy scholar later wrote, “Any price? Any friend?”

The slogan “There’s no excuse for domestic abuse” has led to police arresting both batterers and their victims who fought back.

“Over time it’s going to be important for nations to know they will be held accountable for inactivity,” George W. Bush said after Sept. 11, 2001. “You’re either with us or against us in the fight against terror.”

He told Congress: “Every nation has a choice to make. In this conflict, there is no neutral ground. If any government sponsors the outlaws and killers of innocents, they have become outlaws and murderers, themselves. And they will take that lonely path at their own peril.”

Other nations with more experience in combating terrorism found Bush’s notion that only punitive approaches like war were effective and acceptable soon left the United States alone on its path.

Zero tolerance, click it or ticket, unconditional surrender, no new taxes, no exceptions/no excuses—these have all had negative and often unforeseen consequences.

Last week, the Republican members of the Nevada Assembly used a minority control provision in the state constitution to stop a privacy-invading product of the drug war—legislation requiring merchants to make quarterly inventory reports on cold medicines to law enforcement.

Assembly Judiciary chair Bernie Anderson, normally a sensible and level-headed man, told the Assembly, “We must do everything we can to take this commodity [meth] off this street.”

Everything? That’s not sensible. It’s fascist. It is important to note that the Democrats are using the same arguments in this fight that supporters of the PATRIOT Act have used—that everything is acceptable when it comes to fighting terrorism. Well, it isn’t—in either fighting terror or in fighting drugs. For that matter, as urgent as it is to curb the excesses of the “war on drugs,” everything shouldn’t be considered.

Assemblymember Sheila Leslie said, “The less we have these products available to the public, the fewer meth labs we are going to have, the fewer people are going to get addicted, the fewer people are going to be clogging our prison system due to this horrible drug.”

That’s true. But invading the privacy of bystanders remote from the drug war battlefield isn’t the only way or the most effective way to do it. The sooner lawmakers get away from the failed punitive paradigm for the drug problem and get the nation back to the health care paradigm that kept drug use low for decades, the better. In the meantime, extending the tentacles of the drug war into the lives of bystanders should be off the table. So should sweeping and overstated rhetoric.

Incidentally, the language of the Reno Gazette-Journal news story on the Assembly vote shows that we journalists still have many of our own language failings. “The Republican minority in the Assembly succeeded Tuesday in killing the strongest legislation proposed this session to deal with Nevada’s methamphetamine crisis,” the newspaper reported. Strongest? Most extreme, yes. But zealotry and strength are not the same thing.