Do you question whether America ought to be engaged in an open-ended and expensive War on Drugs? Do you question it even a little bit, by (for instance) doubting that the federal government ought to be spending billions to interdict marijuana and meddle with medical issues?
If so, then I hate to break it to you, but you aren't much of a patriot. Patriots support, uncritically, the Great War on Drugs.
I know this because our government tells me so.
Our government made this point in the course of justifying its termination of Border Patrol agent Bryan Gonzalez. Gonzalez was stationed in New Mexico. He made a comment critical of the War on Drugs, suggesting that legalizing marijuana might reduce cross-border violence, and mentioned LEAP, an organization of current and former law enforcement agents who question our nation's drug policy. This got him shit-canned.
Now, as an employer myself, I'm somewhat sympathetic to the notion that you can't let an employee run out and trumpet ideas completely in conflict with your organization's policies. I wouldn't tolerate an employee going on TV to say that criminal defense lawyers are all lying cheats trying to trick juries, for instance, because that would degrade my ability to represent clients.
So, did Bryan Gonzalez go on TV? Did he write a letter to the editor? Did he join a public movement contradicting the Border Patrol's policy?
No. He had a conversation with another agent.
Stationed in Deming, N.M., Mr. Gonzalez was in his green-and-white Border Patrol vehicle just a few feet from the international boundary when he pulled up next to a fellow agent to chat about the frustrations of the job. If marijuana were legalized, Mr. Gonzalez acknowledges saying, the drug-related violence across the border in Mexico would cease. He then brought up an organization called Law Enforcement Against Prohibition that favors ending the war on drugs.
That was impermissible. It was, in the view of our government, unpatriotic.
Those remarks, along with others expressing sympathy for illegal immigrants from Mexico, were passed along to the Border Patrol headquarters in Washington. After an investigation, a termination letter arrived that said Mr. Gonzalez held “personal views that were contrary to core characteristics of Border Patrol Agents, which are patriotism, dedication and esprit de corps.”
See, Bryan Gonzalez did what Good Americans aren't supposed to do: he subjected a core government policy to critical thinking. He questioned whether the War on Drugs makes social, economic, and moral sense. But patriotism, as defined by modern law enforcement — as defined by the sort of people who seek power in government — isn't about exercising faculties like critical thinking or independent moral judgment. It's about saluting, in the way we salute flags and fallen soldiers and parades, core ideas that have been transformed from policy arguments into quasi-religious dogma. The War on Drugs is merely one of many — along with "War on Terror" and "Government Regulators Know What They Are Doing" and "The Political Process In America Works." Few of us salute them all, but most of us salute at least a few.
The government — people who have guns and badges, and people who derive power from controlling those with guns and badges — depends on our uncritical acceptance of these propositions. That's why they had to fire Bryan Gonzalez and impugn not just his obedience but his devotion to America — because devotion to America, in the minds of politicians, means devotion to them. The government could have offered a point-by-point refutation of Bryan Gonzalez' spur-of-the-moment comments, but that would be missing the point. The War on Drugs is not a Socratic dialogue; the War on Drugs is a harried dialogue with your five-year-old: because I said so, that's why. The War on Drugs is an enterprise based largely on emotion, which is exactly why the government responded to Bryan Gonzalez with an emotional attack — you're no patriot if you talk that way. Sound familiar? It ought to — elements of the Right use it to quell discussions of the War on Terror, and elements of the Left use it to quell discussions of taxes and regulation.
The government must resort to emotion because of the probable consequences of a fact-based dialogue about many of the issues facing America. We live in a country where, for a decade, government agents have been unable to distinguish ideas about things from the things themselves: where security agents get ridiculed for confusing a picture of an imaginary killer robot on a t-shirt with a real weapon, shrug, and five years later still blithely detain people for pictures of guns as if pictures of things were the things themselves. At least the TSA is consistent, and hews to a constant theme: a picture of a thing might not be the thing itself — just as a tattoo saying "atom bomb" may not be a bomb — but words and pictures of things can generate emotions, and the government would like us to be motivated by our emotions. Just as we could question the War on Drugs, we could ask questions like "has the TSA really stopped any terrorism? At what cost? Would other measures be more effective? Why can't agents be taught to tell the difference between a thing and a picture of a thing?"
But that would be unpatriotic to ask.