Pubdate: Mon, 05 Feb 2001
Source: Newsweek (US)
Copyright: 2001 Newsweek, Inc.
Contact:  251 West 57th Street, New York, N.Y. 10019
Author: Stephen Gaghan

First Person: The Enemy is Every One of Us

The Acclaimed Screenwriter Of 'Traffic,' An Unflinching Inquiry Into 
The War On Drugs, Learned His Material Firsthand

Feb. 12 issue - I started drinking young and hard in Louisville, Ky., 
a town known for its bourbon, cigarettes and horse racing. I grew up 
on the same block where Hunter S. Thompson had a generation before. I 
also wanted to be a writer, like my grandfather, who carried a card 
in his wallet that read, "If you find me, call my son [my father] at 
this number... "

I WASN'T MUCH DIFFERENT from my peers, except where they could stop 
drinking after three or six or 10 drinks, I couldn't stop and 
wouldn't stop until I had progressed through marijuana, cocaine, 
heroin and, finally, crack and freebase-which seem for so many people 
to be the last stop on the elevator.

None of this is particularly interesting. I was white and 
middle-class and took a stubborn pleasure in throwing away 
opportunities. I seemed to have a skill for attracting, then 
antagonizing, figures of authority and was expelled from high school 
after exhausting the supply of teachers willing to have me in their 
classes. I didn't care where I went as long as it was somewhere else. 
Like I said, common as weeds. I didn't care where I went as long as 
it was somewhere else.

I made my way to New York, where I could purchase drugs off the 
street 24 hours a day. I rarely slept and felt lousy most days, 
working intermittently, befriending bartenders. Eventually I got 
arrested on the corner of 15th Street and 8th Avenue in a sting 
designed to take down a 14-year-old drug seller and his family. The 
cops wanted a white guy for the bust and waited until they got me. 
Later that night I was handcuffed inside a wire cage at the precinct. 
The following afternoon they chained 18 of us together and herded us 
out into the sunlight and into a small box on the back of a pickup 
truck. It was an Indian summer day with the temperature in the low 
90s. The truck soon pulled over and parked. The fans were turned off, 
the lights turned on. We started to bake.

An hour went by and people were going crazy. I had written a 
"Simpsons" script and now recited it by heart. My audience was 
calling me "Professor" because of my glasses and asking questions 
about Bart and Lisa. Finally, the hatch separating the prisoners and 
the police officers slid open. A face appeared in the little slot. A 
voice said, "We're gonna ask you a question and if you get it right, 
we'll turn on the fans, turn off the lights and even give you a slice 
of pizza." The hatch shut.

Voices started in, "Yo, Professor, answer the question." The hatch 
opened. The face looked us over-soaked, puke everywhere, steaming-and 
asked, "Which is closer to you now, the moon or Europe?" I panicked. 
Was this a trick question? Was every answer wrong? I looked at the 
faces staring at me. Were we more likely to get to the moon than 
Europe? At least we could see the moon.

I felt a level of despair that is almost indescribable. Maybe we were 
already dead. Maybe this was my purgatory and this was my question. 
The hatch opened. The face appeared. I said slowly, "Europe... Europe 
is closer to us now." From the front seat, I heard a genuinely 
perplexed voice, "F-kin' n-ers got it right." The hatch shut. I 
thought about this a lot as I continued spiraling down the toilet, 
trying to get clean, failing, trying again, failing again. Moon or 
Europe? I moved to Los Angeles. I wrote law shows and cop shows on 
television. I wrote occasionally. I spent most of my time downtown 
scoring. I won an Emmy for an episode of "NYPD Blue" composed while 
on heroin. I got married, got divorced and drove very, very carefully.

Finally I reached out a hand for help, and help was there. In 1997, a 
few months sober, I found myself in the office of a highly placed 
Department of Defense official. I was researching "Traffic" and had a 
headful of statistics and a lot of questions for the man overseeing 
the Pentagon's efforts in our "war on drugs." He is a smart, caring 
person, and we were getting along pretty well, so I asked this 
question: "What do you think about the fact that 70 percent of the 
cocaine in the U.S. comes over the border from Mexico, mostly driven 
in large trucks?" He looked at me for a long time, then snapped, 
"What do you want me to do? You want me to do nothing and it goes to 
80 percent, or you want me to dedicate eight years of my goddam life 
and maybe get it down to 60? I've got a wife and kids in the Virginia 
suburbs. It's not like I work for the goddam Department of 
Agriculture and can quit and go lobby for the goddam soybean 
industry, now is it? Is it?"

Something started to tingle in the back of my brain. There it was: 
despair on the level I'd felt that New York summer. He'd gotten 
himself down in a hole like the one addicts find themselves in. I 
went back through my notes and realized most of the people I was 
talking to, the hundreds and hundreds of people I interviewed, had 
spoken in the same voice about this little "war" of ours. And that 
voice was despair. When you wage a war on human nature, the enemy is 
every one of us. And a question leapt to mind: after all this money 
and time and suffering, which are we closer to? The moon or Europe?

Screenwriter Gaghan won a Golden Globe for "Traffic."
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MAP posted-by: Kirk Bauer