Saving the World from Ourselves, One Reader at a Time

One of the unexpected joys of writing op-ed columns for the past four years has been corresponding with and developing intellectually stimulating friendships with my readers. In February 2009, I published one of my most popular columns in the Hazleton Standard-Speaker titled “Walking through a College Campus.” It was one of those rare days that writers live for, when inspiration for something unusual, personal, and poetic comes to you out of nowhere. Those moments also make you mildly anxious because the most original works are usually the riskiest. Thankfully, my readers responded very positively.  

My favorite time of day is right before the sun disappears over the horizon. There’s something unfinished about it. The colors are blending and undecided. Night lights are flickering on, and shadows drape across streets. In that brief moment of transition, everything is a little exposed, and you get the feeling that life is best raw.

That’s when I like to take a walk. The best time to go outside is when you don’t have anywhere to go. When you have places to be, you don’t notice everything around you.

Take a college campus, for instance. You look at the buildings and speculate what was the highest IQ that ever passed through them. You see the bricks lining the walkway and wonder how many men went home with sore backs after laying them in the ground. You watch the students laughing and joking and hope the world doesn’t kick the energy out of them. You notice the old professor making his way to his car and imagine how different it all looked when he was a young professor.

I especially like the different personalities passing by.

“What do girls like?” a guy asks his female friend. Presumably he is trying to impress someone. Aren’t we all.

To the other side of me, a boy and girl are talking and walking arm-in-arm. You can always tell the new couples by the way they crane their necks to talk to each other. Like they’re whispering into a microphone. Only new couples, though. That’s the rule. The exceptions are the lucky ones. I don’t know if there’s such a thing as soulmates, but if you’re still craning twenty years into the relationship, that’s as close as it gets.

Just past them is a ragged human being. “Can you spare eighty cents?” Now what in the world would compel him to be so precise? Eighty cents. You’ve got to admire a man who knows what he wants. I dig in my pocket. I have seventy-one cents. I fork it over. A quiet thank-you.

A man on a bicycle comes up from behind me. Where did he come from? Spooky. Now he’s alongside me. “You gotta be careful bout that sorta thing. He could just use that money for booze. He probably has a problem.”

You know how you try not to snicker when someone says something obvious? “Yea, I’ll have to keep that in mind.” He doesn’t have a problem, I think. He has oh-so-many problems. He looked homeless, broke, unemployed, soiled, and freezing. If I were him, I’d want a drink, too.

“God bless you for your good deed, though,” and just as quick as he came, the bicycle darts away.

Back indoors, into the elevator, up twenty-four floors. It’s me and one other person, but no one says a word. We stand on opposite sides. Humans can be so awkward. Why didn’t we say hi? A smile would do. But we’re cold and tired, and it’s late. Maybe he needed a warm greeting. Maybe it was a rough day, and I could have given him his first smile in a long time. Maybe not, but I’ll never know.

In my apartment, one of my roommates is sitting in the living room. “How’s it going?” My response is a string of complaints. “Hey, it could be worse,” comes the reply.

Yes it could. I think of the beggar who I gave seventy-one cents to, just as my roommate adds, “It’s supposed to be a really bad storm tonight. Maybe a blizzard.”

It was below freezing that night. The snow and wind looked terrible, even from inside a warm apartment. I wonder if he ever got those last nine cents.

I got an email from a reader — one who’d never contacted me before — that suggested I read the book The Soloist, by a Los Angeles Times reporter who struck up a friendship with a Juilliard-trained violinist who now plays on the street and refuses treatment for his mental illness. (The book has since become a movie with Robert Downey Jr. playing the reporter and Jamie Foxx as the violinist.) I read it and began researching mental illness, drug addiction, and homelessness. The reader wanted me to call more attention to these issues, and I agreed with him.

In August 2009, I wrote two posts on these issues, “Mortgaging Our Future…Again” and “Twin Causes: Ted Kennedy’s Legacy Endures in His Son.” I only regret that neither article was published where most people will read them. They remain two of my proudest works.

In September 2009, I published my first column in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. (I can’t figure out how to use their archives, so I’ve reproduced the column below instead of linking to it on their site.) I wrote about the drug trade, continuing the meme I began in “Twin Causes.”

This time, I got an email from another new reader. This reader had spent time in South America, and my message synched with his experiences. He had stories to tell, lessons he’d learned, a passion to help the rest of the world that he wanted to share with his fellow Americans. Since then, he has started three blogs to do just that: Lima Julliette, Chicago Revisited, and Hospital Operations. I encourage you to visit them, especially his first post on Lima Julliette, which showcases his profound understanding of the challenges that we face as a society.

I hope everyone who reads this will consider sending your thoughts and opinions to me. First we talk, then we change the world.

It’s not every day that countries take foreign policy advice from seventeenth-century mathematicians, but Barack Obama might want to make an exception for Blaise Pascal.

Pascal holds all sorts of distinctions, but schoolchildren mostly recognize his name for gracing a common proposition in their physics textbooks. Pascal’s Law holds that a change in pressure applied to an enclosed fluid is distributed to other parts of the container. You might know it from the last time you squeezed a balloon. Instead of disappearing, the air relocated to the other parts of the now-bulging balloon.

Nowadays, though, when people refer to the “balloon effect,” it’s usually a metaphor for the War on Drugs.

The latest episode has South America up in arms. In the face of drug violence on the Mexican border, the Obama administration has teamed up with President Alvaro Uribe to extend American military presence in Colombia. Throughout the Bush years, Uribe relied on American support to resist the rebel forces of the FARC as part of the “Plan Colombia” initiated by the Clinton administration to stop cocaine at its origin.

Since James Monroe promised to defend the Western hemisphere from European intrusion, American presidents have insisted that the security and prosperity of North and South America depend on each other. For modern presidents, that has meant stopping the flow of drugs across our southern border and containing (or overthrowing) unfriendly regimes. So it is that George W. Bush—and now Barack Obama—defended our tax dollars going to fight the FARC.

What most Americans do not know is that our tax dollars are largely responsible for the rise of the FARC in the first place.

Until the 1990s, the FARC was a small, ineffective group hiding in the jungle. When President Clinton abandoned his predecessors’ strategy of targeting traffickers in the Caribbean and focused on the source, coca farmers turned to the FARC for protection. With drug money in their pockets, the FARC became the brutal insurgency that plagues Uribe’s government today.

Meanwhile, successive federal budgets devoted less money to drug prevention and treatment, which saves taxpayers seven dollars for every dollar invested, according to recent research. This, economists call “demand-side” policies. Supply-side interventions, on the other hand, have received billions upon billions, and how is that working out?

Since Plan Colombia began, we have not succeeded in limiting production, only pushing it from region to region. We have seen this balloon effect, too, in Afghanistan, where our attacks on the Taliban and al-Qaeda have only managed to push them from a wasteland with little resources to Pakistan, home to lightly guarded nuclear arsenals. And the money we gave to Colombia was used more against political enemies in the FARC than drug traffickers, just as the money we gave to Pakistan was used more to intimidate India than to ferret out terrorists.

A more demand-focused solution would not only wage a more successful War on Drugs. It just might be our most sensible step in the War on Terror.