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A Useful Lie (11/21/03)
Bad boys bad boys whatcha gonna do... It's a slow TV night and the channel surfing has stopped on "Cops", the Fox hit where petty crooks get to be hesitant TV celebrities for a few minutes. Tonight they're following a group of local Drug Warriors who are posing as dealers in order to bust petty users. An older fellow shows up, looking for a little pot. After the sale is made, the police swoop down and arrest him, cameras on their heels.
The arresting officer, wearing the academy-issue 'I am sympathetic to your Terrible Drug Problem' face, asks the older man why he's out looking for pot.
The victim of the bust blinks slowly, perhaps wondering if he had heard correctly, then, hesitantly... "Uh...I have...a problem?"
The officer nods, signaling to the arrestee that he has answered correctly. Encouraged by the approval of the men with guns, the arrestee hopefully announces that he has been a victim of marijuana addiction for many years.
The officers nod in understanding, well aware of the terrible addictive grasp pot claims on any who inhale it's strangely sweet smoke.
Usually it's not caught on camera, but the same basic exchange occurs time and again throughout America. Where once we blamed the devil for social ills, now we blame drugs...and everybody is a willing accomplice to that lie.
Whether before a cop or the court, The Drugs Made Me Do It is a reliable tool. It's a lie the police and judges want to hear, because it panders to their beliefs. It's a lie the defendants want to tell, because it re-directs blame for their own misspent lives away from themselves. It's not your fault that you mugged somebody; you were being controlled by an addiction. It's not your fault when your pot-smoking son grows up to be a dysfunctional asshole; that you regularly came home drunk and beat him was just a coincidence. When a troubled young man murdered both his parents in my hometown, the neighborhood gossip brought no surprises. What could have caused such a horrible thing? The Lie was quickly offered and quickly accepted: "I hear he was taking drugs."
Everybody loves the Lie because it means nothing was our own fault. Our wasted lives, our petty crimes, our dysfunctional relationships...all were caused not by the rich tapestries of psychological problems our parents and society bequeathed to us, but by inanimate chemicals. Like some miracle of restored cultural virginity, we are swept clean by the Lie, all fault for our society's sins of omission and commission carried away without facing a truth that seems too terrible to entertain: That we have spawned legions of human beings without hope, emotionally damaged and empty, prone to lashing out in rage and desperation or just sitting quietly in fear, waiting for the night they find the will to swallow a bottle of pills or pick up a gun.
And so the dance of multilateral denial goes on. We blame school shootings and suicides on video games, angry music, or little piles of white powder. Anything to keep from admitting that we created these people, that the desperate searching for meaning or oblivion is a symptom of some larger failure of our culture.