Tuesday, April 23, 2019
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The Banality of Evil in the War on Drugs


The New York Times published a story this week about prisoners who die while still incarcerated.

The article pointed that when prisoners are suffering a fatal illness and have just a short time to live, the law permits them to apply for early release so that they can return home and die among loved ones. It’s society’s way of showing compassion for a person who is very unlikely to commit more crimes before he passes away.

The point of the article was to highlight the high number of cases in which prisoners’ applications for early release have been approved, only to be nixed by bureaucrats in the Federal Bureau of Prisons, who have veto power over such applications. Senator Brian Schatz of Hawaii stated, “The Bureau of Prisons has the theoretical authority to do this, but they basically do none of it.”

As I was reading the article, I was struck by the following sentence: “Roughly half of those who died after applying were convicted of nonviolent fraud or drug crimes.”

Consider the case of Kevin Zeich, who had 3 1/2 years to go on a 27-year jail sentence. Almost blind, suffering from cancer, and unable to eat, Zeich applied for early release. His warden approved his application. The bureaucrats at the Federal Bureau of Prisons, however, vetoed the application, saying that Zeich’s “life expectancy is current indeterminate.”

Zeich applied three more times. The answer was always the same — that he wasn’t sick enough. On a fourth try, his daughter Kimberly received a telephone call saying that her father would soon be on a plane to her home in California. The next morning, she received another call informing her that her father had died.

What had Zeich done to justify a 27-year jail sentence? No, he hadn’t murdered anyone. He hadn’t raped anyone. He hadn’t robbed anyone. He hadn’t molested any children. He sold methamphetamines to other adults.

Think about that for a moment. Two consenting adults. One wants to ingest drugs and, therefore, wishes to purchase them. Another adult has the drugs and is willing to sell them. They arrive at a mutually satisfactory agreement.

Why should that be the business of the federal government? Why in the world should anyone have to lose 27 years of his life for engaging in a mutually beneficial, nonviolent drug transaction with another consenting adult?

And why, for heaven’s sake, deny a man the dignity of dying at home after serving 24 years of one of the most unjust prison sentences that a person could ever receive?

It was a banality of evil that characterized the mindsets of bureaucrats who worked in the Nazi governmental machinery. They were just enforcing the rules. It is that banality of evil that pervades the bureaucracy that enforces the U.S. federal war on drugs. What they did to Kevin Zeich is proof positive of that phenomenon.

Of course, he’s not the only one.

Anthony Bell was serving a 16-year jail sentence for selling cocaine. Imagine that — 16 years in jail for selling a product that someone wants to buy. What business is that of the U.S. government? After prison doctors determined that he had less than 6 months to live as a result of lupus and kidney failure, Bell applied for early release. The Federal Bureau of Prisons took about that long to decide whether to let it go through. Their decision? Denied. Bell died two days later in prison.

The banality of evil. What better phrase than that to describe bureaucrats in both the Nazi system and the U.S. drug-war system?

Then there was Tommy Leftwich, who died of cancer in prison while serving a 12-year sentence for making meth. The Bureau of Prisons said his early release would “minimize the severity of his offense and pose a risk to the community.”

Severity? Risk? In peaceful transactions involving consenting adults?

This is the banality of evil.

After all, ask yourself an important question: What did the destruction of those lives accomplish? What did making those people die in prison accomplish? Did it win the decades-long war on drugs? Did it even dent the supply of drugs into the United States? Did it dissuade other people from selling drugs?

Those draconian drug-war jail sentences and jail deaths, like all the other tens of thousands of drug-war punishments for the last several decades, have accomplished nothing. Absolutely nothing. The drug war just destroys and destroys. And it just goes on and on. So does the banality of evil that undergirds the drug war.

It’s not just drug offenses. I was particularly struck when I came to the part in the article that talked about Irwin Schiff, the famous income-tax resister who the IRS went after for tax resistance. I knew Schiff personally. He was a gregarious guy. Very personable. He wouldn’t have hurt a fly. He just didn’t believe in income taxation. And he lived according to his beliefs, refusing to file returns and pay income taxes. He also made it his life’s mission to tell people that they didn’t need to so either, which, not surprisingly, especially upset the bureaucrats in the IRS.

Schiff was sentenced to 13 long years in jail for tax resistance. When he had only two years left on his sentence, the 87-year-old man applied for early release. Prison officials said no.

That’s not the worst of it. According to the article, “When [his son] Andrew Schiff arrived at a medical facility of inmates to say his goodbyes, his dying 87-year-old father was unconscious and on a respirator. Yet he was cuffed to his hospital bed and under 24-hour watch by an armed guard, according to Mr. Schiff.”

Did you get that? Handcuffed to his hospital bed and under armed guard, presumably because prison officials felt that the 87-year-old unconscious and dying incomtax resister might suddenly spring from his death bed and escape the clutches of the federal government, thereby denying federal bureaucrats the satisfaction of watching Schiff complete his full jail sentence for tax resistance. I can’t help but wonder whether they were chagrined at God for cheating them out of their full pound of flesh.

Andrew Schiff said, “There’s no humanity in there.” That’s because there is a banality of evil in there.

After all, let’s not forget that income tax resistance wasn’t even a crime for the first 125 years of American history. That’s because there wasn’t any income tax or IRS. For that matter, there also weren’t any drug laws during all that time.

At the very least, Americans need to end the evil of the drug war, not by getting “better” people into the federal Bureau of Prisons or even by reforming the law to take them out of the early-release decision-making process. After decades of violence, death, destruction, inhumanity, and failure, it’s time to pull this evil weed out by its root. It time to end, not reform, the federal war on drugs.

Jacob G. Hornberger is founder and president of The Future of Freedom Foundation.

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