By Mike Koetting February 27, 2020
This month my book club read The Border, by Don Winslow. It’s a novel, basically a thriller, focusing on the drug trade between Mexico and the United States. Though fiction, it is enough rooted in the underlying facts of the drug trade that you cannot help but emerge with a new appreciation for the extent of the problem.
The are a couple of obvious themes. The War on Drugs has been a disaster on both sides of the border and it will never be solved as long as the possible profits are so staggeringly large. Moreover, there is some level of complicity in parts of the financial elite, either because they have drug money in their holdings, because they are creating conditions that make people susceptible to drugs, or both. One of the double-edged throw-away lines in the book is a character who asks “You know what’s the difference between a cartel leader and a hedge fund operator? Wharton Business School.” (The shot at President Trump is deliberate. He and Jared Kushner appear as very-thinly disguised villains in the book.)
This is by no means great literature and I am not suggesting you run out and get a copy. But I have found myself thinking more about the issues raised in this book than issues raised in better books. Two in particular I just haven’t been able to get out of my mind.
There Are Evil Men
The leaders of the cartels, as pictured in this book and reflected in any number of real stories about drug wars in Mexico, are stunningly evil men, and a few women. Almost all of my thinking is structured around vaguely formed notions that humans are basically good. Not perfect, but basically good. We make mistakes, but we mostly mean well.
These people do not mean well. They have absolutely no regard for human life in the sense that you or I do. Even if one were to allow that the characters in the book are drawn a little broadly for literary purposes—and I am not sure I would necessarily concede that—the degree of horrible is literally off the chart of my imagination. I really don’t have a good way to incorporate this into my thinking about policy.
I don’t want to sound too much like a guy realizing his mother probably wasn’t a virgin, but this degree of evil really upset me. Sure, I knew it was out there. But somehow people like Hitler, Stalin and others exist in a separate realm, kind of quarantined from day-to-day life. They were specifically deranged people, singled out in history because of their derangement.
It is much more upsetting to be forced to think about scores of people who are part of contemporary life and have no regard for human life or the amount of suffering they cause. By some measure of awfulness—number of bodies if nothing else–cartel bosses are the worst. But how great is the moral distance between them and the gang street lieutenant who kills a small time operator for infringing on his turf? And do the people who pushed out criminally large amounts of nominally legal opioids into poor counties belong on this scale? While the lines may fuzzy, it is clear the entire illegal drug industry rests on a non-trivial number of people who simply don’t care about the human disasters they leave in their wake. There are better and worse policy approaches to this issue, but the extent to which this degree of evil is imperious to policy is jolting.
What Are We Prepared to Do?
Once you start thinking about the existence of evil actors, you immediately start thinking about what is the proper response.
Can men who are so patently evil be contained with ordinary means? Nietzsche says “He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster. And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.” This is a plausible warning, but it hardly suggests what to do with the reality of monsters.
Do you fight fire with fire? And what choices do you make along the way? In The Border, the DEA chief who is running a sting operation decides to let a large amount of heroin onto the streets as part of a plan to find higher-ups—even though he knows those drugs will cause a certain number of overdose deaths. Good choice or bad choice? He also does not hesitate to assassinate one of the cartel leaders, a man who cannot be described as anything but a scourge on the face of the earth. In the book we are set up to accept this. Should we?
This is just another version of the moral question that arises again and again—is it acceptable to kill one person to save many others?
I have no intention of rehashing possible answers to that question here. I’ll leave it to philosophy classes. I am only reporting that this book really brought me face-to-face with that question in an uncomfortable, real world setting, much less abstract than the philosophy classes.
It also spiraled into a whole world of related moral questions. Set aside the question of whether I would be willing to kill Hitler myself. Would I be willing to order it? If not, how could I support ordering hundreds of thousands of soldiers into battle, many of whom would lose their lives because of Hitler. Certainly letting Hitler run loose cannot be seen as a sensibly human response.
Even though I knew this was leading me down the rabbit-hole, I couldn’t stop thinking about another question. At what point does it become palpable that a human is so far outside the bounds of moral behavior that eliminating him is not automatically reprehensible? On the one hand, a person who writes a book or gives a speech is not necessarily a menace to society, even if the sentiments are utterly repugnant. Nor is the guy who sells loose joints on the corner. On the other hand, the earlier a monster is eliminated, the less damage done. Let it go too long and who knows what danger gets unleashed.
While, of course one can’t ever know what the alternative history would have been, it is hard to imagine the late 1930s and early 1940s playing out the same way without Hitler. To be sure, Hitler was responding to a particular set of historic circumstances—some of them a predicable result of bad policy. But it seems he created a certain personal leadership which bent history down an awful path. When did the evidence suggest the extremity of his path and that the strength of his personal magnetism in combination with broader factors was enough to actually make it happen? How do you know when the Rubicon is crossed? And who could sensibly be counted on to make that decision and act on it? And what if no one acts?
The Thin Protection
I don’t know how to answer these questions. They just lay in my conscience like a really greasy moral cheeseburger eaten too late at night.
But it does remind me of the absolutely essential role of the rule of law. Hobbes famously postulated that without a functioning political community, the life of man is “nasty, brutish and short.” Hobbes vested this political community in a sovereign, but in democracy we have replaced that with a rule of law promulgated by the people. Once we begin to cheat on this rule of law, we open the door wide to monsters.
Slighting the rule of law may start out less damaging than Hitler or Stalin. Or the cartels. But that’s where it leads. The best defense against evil is a rule of law accepted and enforced by the entire society. People who believe they are above the law, threaten us all. And perhaps there is some benefit to be reminded of how tangible that threat can be.