Pubdate: Wed, 17 Feb 1999
Source: Rock River Times (IL)
Address: 128 N. Church St., Rockford, Illinois 61101
FAX: (815) 964-9825
Copyright: The Rock River Times 1999
Author: Dr. John Beresford

THE NAZI COMPARISON

Drug War prisoners that I correspond with call themselves POWs. Some write
"POW in America" in the corner of an envelope under the writerís name and
prison number. "Political prisoner" and "gulag" are terms that enter
conversation. Solzhenitsynís The First Circle and The Gulag Archipelago are
works sometimes referred to.

Americaís vast network of prisons, boot camps, and jails invites comparison
with the detention machinery of former totalitarian regimes. The certainty
of conviction that an accusation of a drug law violation brings -- through
confession (95 percent) or trial and a finding of guilt (the remaining 5
percent) -- matches the idea of automatic conviction that goes with popular
belief about the nazi and communist systems. "Nazi" is a term used by Drug
War prisoners and non-prisoners alike, as though it were a given that the
mentality behind Nazi behavior a half-century ago and the operation of today
ís Drug War is no different.

The comparison is an uncomfortable one, and oneís first inclination is to
reject it. A US judge has objected that nothing in the conduct of todayís
Drug War resembles the terror tactics in Nazi Germany where SS troops could
storm into a personís home and no one saw or heard of that person again. The
objection is understandable, but it rests on a false premise. The Nazis were
not a bunch of crooks, operating outside the confines of the law. Everything
they did had legal backing, and if on some occasion a law was needed they
composed one.

Flat out, it will be objected that a world of difference separates a prison
from a death camp. Drug War prisoners are not intended for a holocaust.
Ominously for our peace of mind, however, until the last minute neither were
the people held in concentration camps. They were held there to protect the
health of society. Moreover, with the obsession with death that gains ground
daily, it is probable that death is in the cards for people accused of drug
law violations in the future. A questionnaire is making the rounds in
Congress that has Yes and No boxes for questions which include: "Do you
favor the death penalty for drug trafficking?" Who in their right mind in
Congress, I wonder, will check No to that question, "trafficking" being the
loaded term for what most people call dealing?

Someone will point to the absurdity of thinking that America would ever
tolerate a "Fuhrer," a wild man with a funny mustache and a way of
haranguing crowds burlesqued by Charlie Chaplin. The point, though, is that
the Nazi comparison refers not so much to rhetoric, inevitably different in
two quite different places and at different times, as to the dehumanization
and trashing of large numbers of people for lifestyles and practices that
violate the norms of mainstream society. For this we do not need a Hitler.
We can do it the American way.

Myself, I am sympathetic to the Nazi comparison. I was in Nazi Germany as a
child.

In the summer of 1938, when I was 14, my parents sent me on a two-week
vacation with a family in a village in north-west Germany. There were Mr.
and Mrs. Otting, their daughter Irmgard, and the youngest son Wolfgang, who
wore his Hitler Jugend uniform at Wednesday night meetings. The two older
sons I never saw. One was in the army. The other was doing two years of
voluntary farm labor, which excused him from army service.

Mr. and Mrs. Otting were old-time Christians, and had the family bible on
display in the china cabinet in the dining room. On the shelf above the Holy
Bible you saw the red and white dust jacket of Mein Kampf, Hitlerís version
of scripture. No one said anything about it, but there had to be a copy of
Mein Kampf on display for two reasons. Every five or six houses or
apartments had an informant who could sift through mail, collect gossip, and
pay a visit to make sure the householder did not have suspicious material
lying around. Also, schoolchildren were taught to report suspicious behavior
to the police.

There wasnít any TV, but there was plenty of entertainment -- parades,
outdoor concerts, Hitler on the radio, sports.

The economy was great. Everyone had a job. Germany was strong. Hitler wanted
peace. New construction was going up everywhere. The trains ran on time. You
didnít see beggars in the street, hanging around. Undesirables had been
rounded up, got out of the way.

The newspapers were full of praise for the Nazi system. A weekly periodical
with pictures showed who the Untermenschen were, the underclass of people
who had no place in decent society. In those days the underclass consisted
of gypsies, Jews, homosexuals, the wrong sort of artists, trade unionists,
and communists. They were described in terms we now call demonization and
scapegoating.

The universities had their share of academics who endorsed Nazi policy.
Doctors, engineers, race specialists, and others spelled out theories which
gave the Nazis a green light.

At 14 I was barely aware of all this. Yet by the end of my two weeks with
the Ottings I had a feeling that to this day remains hard to describe. I
took this feeling home to England, where I promptly forgot it. It wasnít the
sort of feeling you had there. I didnít have it during the war, which
started the next year. I didnít have it when I studied medicine, emigrated
to America, became an American citizen, and lived in New York for 20 years.
I didnít have it in Canada, where I practiced psychiatry for 15 years. I
didnít have it when I retired from practice and spent time in a Buddhist
monastery.

On and off, I would read about Nazi Germany, but the feeling that I had when
I was briefly in Nazi Germany as a child had gone.

In the fall of 1992 an ad appeared in the personal column of High Times
Magazine, sent in by Brian Adams. Brian wrote that he was 18 years old, just
out of high school, when he was arrested and sentenced to ten years of
imprisonment for passing out LSD to his friends. If a High Times reader was
interested in LSD sentencing methods, the reader could write to Brian and
learn something.

I wrote to Brian, who introduced me to Tim Dean, who introduced me to other
LSD prisoners and soon I was in the thick of a correspondence which has not
stopped growing. In 1993 I began to visit Drug War prisoners in prison. I
drove to the Canadian border, crossed into the United States, and talked
with Pat Jordan in County Jail in Nashville, Tennessee. I drove to Michigan
City to talk with Franklin Martz, sentenced to 40 years in the Indiana State
Prison in that city. I drove to other prisons to speak with Drug War
prisoners, paying attention to the information they provided. That started
my Drug War education.

One day something happened. I realized that every time I left the monastery
and entered the United States I was struck with a weird feeling that left as
soon as I re-entered Canada. I couldnít put my finger on it, but it was as
real as day. When the meaning of this realization dawned, it hit me like a
ton of bricks. The feeling I had acquired in Nazi Germany and forgotten more
than half a century before was back. My Drug War education had clicked in.

The feeling told me everything. The exponent of democracy had fallen on hard
times. America was treading the same path as Nazi Germany. The War on Drugs
and Hitlerís war on anyone he took exception to -- the symptoms in the two
cases were identical.

One thing I had to accept was that I could not stay on in the monastery. I
could not sit back and watch disaster unfold. I had to get out in the world
and become an activist, whatever becoming an activist entailed. Even if no
one else saw the War on Drugs in the same light I did, I had to do what
might lie in my power to stop it.

I wonít go into what has happened since, except to mention a friendship with
Nora Callahan and a tie to the November Coalition. It is a relief to know
that others share the perception that historically we are in big trouble,
without their having once glimpsed life in Nazi Germany.

Where it will end, no one can say. But there is reason for hope. In 1938
people in Germany did not know the price they would soon pay for subscribing
to Nazi policy. We, looking back, do know. With the benefit of hindsight and
with concerted effort we may still halt the juggernaut, free Drug War
prisoners, reverse an unsalutary policy, and restore meaning to the words
"liberty and justice for all." If we donít, we will have no one to blame for
the disaster that lies just around the corner but ourselves.

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