October 11, 2012

With two long, draining wars on the decline, who wants to confront a third?

In this one, the longest running and one of the most expensive in American history, our enemies are fellow citizens and the frontlines are our city streets. Yet this four-decade draconian fight is so deeply ingrained in our society, it is perhaps easier to ignore, like a long marriage gone stale. 

Even now, in the midst of an election season, the War on Drugs barely registers. Haven’t we got bigger problems?

“To ignore this issue is to ignore the 800-pound elephant in the room,” insisted author and filmmaker Eugene Jarecki, whose previous works, including HBO’s “Reagan,” “The Trials of Henry Kissinger” and “Why We Fight,” each deal with questions about American policy. His latest documentary, “The House I Live In,” which won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, takes on the drug war in an unflinching and personal way. Not through the prism of addiction, because, although he’s tried them, Jarecki is “not a drug taker, no,” but through the lens of a much larger dependency that, he argues, has gradually and sometimes unwittingly been woven into the fabric of American life.

Jarecki first encountered this issue growing up in a New Haven Jewish home. Raised in tandem with the children and grandchildren of his African-American caretaker, Nannie Jeter, whom in the film he describes as “a second mother,” he  came of age and headed for the Ivy League, while Jeter’s offspring faltered. 

“I saw many of them struggling with poverty, joblessness, crime and worse,” he says in the film’s voiceover narration. 

When he asked Jeter whence the cause, “drugs” was her answer.

What many might have ignored moved Jarecki to outrage. “I have a natural struggle-side mentality,” he said over coffee at the Chateau Marmont. “If one of the aspects of modern life seems inequitable or unfair or hypocritical, I’m deeply uncomfortable. It’s an asymmetry that I can feel.”

It’s also an asymmetry exemplified by his privilege (“I was a very lucky American,” he said), but experienced unjustly by his ancestors. “As an American Jewish person whose family fled persecution in foreign places” — his father fled Nazi Germany in 1939, and his mother’s family fled czarist Russia — “we were taught that we were children of flight, that flight was always around the corner, and that not only could it happen again to ourselves, it could happen to others.”

Call it a lucky reminder for someone born white and Jewish in late-20th century America, which provided Jarecki a powerful motive to pay forward his fortune. “Within the American story, our sisters and brothers in the struggle for dignity were black Americans,” he said. “A natural bond formed with these people we saw singing ‘Go Down Moses,’ thinking of themselves as having struggled the way Jews struggled under the pharaoh.” 

But Jarecki became puzzled when he realized how the struggle stories had diverged. The trajectory of black Americans in their post-Civil Rights struggle does not mirror the path of Jewish ascension. What, he wondered, was getting in the way of black progress?

“The drug war, broadly speaking, is an immoral catastrophe,” he said. Without mincing words, Jarecki’s film takes on the economic, political, sociological and psychological consequences of the drug-war juggernaut. At times it comes off as agitprop, the same way Jarecki’s intellectual rants can sound like manifesto in conversation (capitalism, for instance, is “an enemy of democracy”), but its unswerving focus on the humanity of its subjects, and its indictment of all political stripes, not one party, saves it from one-sidedness.  

Not only an artist, Jarecki is also an activist seeking reform. He taught politics at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies and is the founder and executive director of The Eisenhower Project, a public policy group. Film allows him to explore these issues and brings him into contact with the raging diversity of experience in America, though he is far more invested in influencing policy than scoring at the box office.  

The War on Drugs, he said, “is a system that must be on trial at election time.”

“We have to ask what it means for America to be the world’s largest jailer, what it means that we’ve spent a trillion dollars in the War on Drugs, and yet drugs are cheaper, purer, more available and more in use today than ever before.”

At a time when resources are scarce, the cost of incarcerating American citizens for drug offenses is a mile high. Wouldn’t it make more sense to treat most drugs like alcohol? In November, Proposition 36 will seek to reduce the sentencing for the California “three strikes” law, which currently allows prosecutors to seek life sentences for a third felony, even if petty or nonviolent. “Right now, there is someone serving a life sentence whose third crime was stealing a slice of pizza in Redondo Beach,” Jarecki said.

If we’re honest, modifying drug laws is about more than economic logic and rationality; it’s also about fairness. “We should be smart on crime, not tough on crime,” Jarecki said.

Years spent interviewing just a few of the 2.3 million people incarcerated in the United States — plus the jailers, judges and law enforcement officers who work to put them there — convinced Jarecki something bold must be done.  

“When people on the outside criticize a system, OK, that’s important, but when someone on the inside is willing to risk their job security, risk their livelihood to step out and tell me the criticism they have about the system they are a part of? The courage of that is such a moment of human majesty that it behooves me to honor it.

“I think justice is something inside you,” he said. Indeed, his own history is awash in it. “I was taught from a young age [that Jews] had a role to play as messengers of human dignity, and in the struggle for human rights and the need to defend the voiceless. My whole life is versed in that.”

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