A Victim of Our Vice

  Last Friday, an American missionary, Veronica Bowers, thirty-five, and her seven-month-old daughter were killed when a Peruvian Air Force jet fired on the airplane that was taking them into Peru's Amazonian interior. According to press reports, an American surveillance plane believed that the Bowers' plane -- flying in an area used by drug cartels -- might be carrying drugs. They passed on this information to the Peruvian Air Force. What happened next is unclear. Peru insists they ordered the plane to land, and when they didn't get an answer, their fighters shot it down -- an account denied by the Baptist Fellowship for World Evangelism, which sponsored the Bowers. What is clear is that Peru regularly -- at least thirty times since 1995 -- shoots down civilian airplanes suspected of carrying drugs. And it does so with the United States' knowledge, and, arguably, with its blessing. What's also clear is that, as the Washington Post reported, American officials have long had misgivings about the Peruvian government shooting down civilian planes. U.S. officials feared innocent people would die. But we continued to cooperate with Peru, and adopted what the Post calls a "don't ask, don't tell policy" regarding what Peru did with the information we gave them. A policy that, in this instance, cost Bowers her life -- a wrong policy that ought to be changed. But there is an even deeper issue: Roni Bowers and her daughter died as a result of our anxiety about the impact of drugs on American society and the means we have chosen to deal with the drug problem. Our cooperation with Peru (and our annual certification of countries as "cooperating" in the war on drugs) is part of a strategy to reduce the drug supply. Now, while reducing supply is important, what we often forget is that it's American demand that generates Latin American supply. If Americans didn't have an appetite for drugs, the cartels would be out of business in days. And Americans are ambivalent about doing anything about the demand for drugs. We pass more draconian drug laws, directed almost entirely against sale and distribution. But there's no political support for increased penalties for consumption or increased treatment for those hooked. On the contrary, people who use drugs are considered victims of a disease and bear no moral responsibility for their own appetites. Kids can get drugs in almost any school, and we can't even keep drugs out of prisons. Every night I went to bed in prison, I could smell marijuana burning in the dormitory. If you can get drugs there, you can get them anywhere. Since we won't do what's necessary to reduce demand, we go to extreme measures on the supply side; it's like changing the subject. And it was this unwillingness to accept responsibility for our drug problems that, just as much as the Peruvian Air Force, killed our missionary sister and her daughter. What we need is a major campaign to stop drug use -- business, government, and citizen groups working together to stigmatize it, just live we've done with cigarettes. And if necessary, punish users. Well, whatever the short-term fallout from last week's tragedy, the fact is clear that unless we get serious about stamping out demand, we'll continue to need foreign governments to protect us from our own appetites. And other innocents will die because we won't deal with the real moral issues. For further reference: "U.S. Notified Peru of Suspect Plane; Amazon Surveillance Operation Identified Missionary Craft as Possible Drug Flight." Washington Post, 22 April 2001.


Chuck Colson


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