Terrorism and the Drug War: More Unforeseen Consequences

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Unwise and unjust laws and government policies have this way of coming back to us with a vengeance. For example, the current government jihad against the stock market — camouflaged as action to stop "insider trading" and make markets more "democratic" — is sure to make economic recovery less likely to happen.

These pages have long pointed out that the misnamed War on Drugs has taken a toll upon this country by inflicting unwarranted property seizures, long prison sentences, and no relief in sight, as law enforcement agencies, federal, state, and local, are hooked as much on federal anti-drug money as the neediest junkie is on his next hit of heroin. The United States, with about two million prisoners, incarcerates one-fourth of the world’s prisoners, by far the highest per-capita rate on the planet. And we are about to reap the bitter consequences of that policy in a way that no one foresaw when Congress, legislatures, and various U.S. presidents first started to push this drug war in order to appease the voters, and especially religious conservatives.

Over the last week, columnist Cal Thomas and Charles Colson, the founder of the Christian-based Prison Fellowship Ministries, have written about Islamic radicalization of thousands of black inmates in U.S. prisons. The numbers are quite frightening, as more than half of U.S. prisoners are incarcerated for crimes tied to illegal drugs, be they violent or even simple possession. As one might expect, a large proportion of those prisoners are blacks, young men who have been disaffected in society and are burning for revenge against the government that put them there.

Colson is quick to point out that most of the inmates who convert to Islam do so peacefully. Furthermore, most black Muslims in this country are law-abiding people and for all of their rhetoric, some Muslim leaders like Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam have done some good for people.

However, there is a very dark side to all of this, and most people either are blind to the problem or are unwilling to do anything about it. Furthermore, most Americans are vastly ignorant about Islam, which only makes matters worse. Colson writes of an encounter in a prison in Jackson, Michigan, when he spoke to a group of Christians and Muslims:

Over 300 Christians filled the seats on one side of a cavernous auditorium; an equal number of Muslims took seats on the opposite side. The tension was palpable. Extra guards were posted at the rear doors. They were right to worry. Every time I mentioned Jesus in my speech, Muslim inmates cranked up their portable radios full blast. Soon there was shaking of fists and taunts hurled back and forth. As angry men moved to the center aisle, I pleaded with the Christians to sit quietly and ignore the hecklers. But only by the grace of God was I able to keep order. Several times, I feared they would lose it — and we’d have a full-scale riot on our hands.

This is hardly an isolated incident, and Colson points out that for some inmates, the more radical the message, the better it is accepted:

Alienated, disenfranchised people are prime targets for radical Islamists who preach a religion of violence, of overcoming oppression by jihad. Yes, most Muslims interpret jihad as an inner struggle. But the radical fundamentalists — some of whom are invading our prisons — mean it literally. Those who take the Koran seriously are taught to hate the Christian and the Jew; lands taken from Islam must be recaptured. And to the Islamist, dying in a jihad is the only way one can be assured of Allah’s forgiveness and eternal salvation.

My home church has a ministry in a local prison, and our pastor told of a recent experience by a guard who was in a worship meeting of the inmate Muslim population. They listened to a tape of someone exhorting the prisoners to rise up, kill their guards, and overthrow the prison. While nothing happened, the guard related to our pastor that he feared for his life during that meeting.

This is not to say that all Muslims are violent killers. However, as we have already seen, militant Islam does have its bloody side and as the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks tell us, it does not take a large number of people to do an extraordinary amount of damage.

As usual, however, those who point out our present danger also neglect to point out that the law-and-order mentality that seeks to criminalize peaceful, private behavior is one of the reasons that all of us are now sentenced to a life of terror attacks without end. As I talk to many of my conservative Christian friends about the dangers of the drug war, without exception they reply as though I have told them that I want every child in America to be hooked on crack. Drug laws, they reply, discourage bad behavior and, beside, since taking drugs is bad, it is good for the law to be a "teacher" of good conduct.

Of course, in 1919, just before Prohibition began, most Americans were willing to say that drinking alcoholic beverage was bad and should rightly be banned. And even though Prohibition gave rise to the Al Capones of this country, there always was a sizeable contingent of people in the United States who supported this inane policy. For that matter, our modern prohibitionist society, while permitting us to drink under regulated circumstances, attempts to keep us from smoking, taking drugs, eating fatty foods, eating candy, and doing whatever else the Ralph Naders of this country demand we not do.

Given that drug prohibition means that most sales will be made in poor neighborhoods by poor blacks, the zero-tolerance mentality has resulted in an explosion of young black men who are imprisoned for things that would not have resulted in jail time as recently as 30 years ago. However, given the rise of more drug laws and asset forfeiture policies, the drug war has taken on a life of its own.

The problem with snaring so many young black males in the anti-drug net is that they are vulnerable in many ways. First, as any student of Islam knows, it is a religion that completely orders one’s life and gives a purpose in life. Many of these young men are rather aimless and have grown up without any kind of family structure. Islam provides that structure for them, and much more. Furthermore, young felons are not likely to be good job candidates when they are released, so being part of an Islamic group at least provides some personal protection.

Second, it is not a long jump for someone who already has demonstrated tendencies of violence to combine that trait with religion. When one can be violent — and go to Paradise for acting out that violence against "infidels" — it is not surprising that our prisons are fertile grounds for recruiting such people.

Yes, by all means we need to monitor our prisons. However, because the political classes have insisted on incarcerating huge numbers of people for nonviolent offenses, the momentum has long been going in the wrong direction. Politicians and political activists have insisted that we lock up people for engaging in peaceful, private exchange. We have paid heavily for this policy mistake, and I fear the price tag is about to go up.

William L. Anderson, Ph.D. [send him mail], teaches economics at Frostburg State University in Maryland, and is an adjunct scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute.

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