Vigilantes only work in red costumes up on a screen
Drugs, like prostitution, present us with an interesting and important question we must ask ourselves. In the same way we grapple with and conflate the issues of women’s empowerment, feminism, objectification, and freedom amongst prostitutes, so is the case with narcotics.
In the Venn diagram, a few questions remain the same. And the recent drive, the so-called war on drugs, has made it imperative that we tackle these questions. If not we as a collective nation, as part of a system of government, then at least, within ourselves.
On the freedom to choose
Any country that wishes to ban the use of drugs does so with some extent of hypocrisy. How we define drugs has evolved, and so has our perception of it, and this varies depending on nations, culture, age -- indeed, a host of factors.
The best example of this would be marijuana, which, for the longest time had been treated as a drug, and was treated as a “gateway” drug -- the use of which would lead you to experiment with other, harder substances. But how we perceive marijuana has shifted exponentially, especially in certain sectors of society, with many countries legalizing, or on the way to legalizing it for common use.
In Bangladesh, while this is not a common viewpoint, there are defenders of the cannabis plant amongst us, upper rungs mostly, and many of them amongst your children. They will bring up weed’s lack of harm, its beneficial effects, how it’s not addictive, how there’s no death caused by smoking up, and they wouldn’t be wrong.
However, whether or not marijuana is harmful is not the point. Even if something was harmful, would it be acceptable for the government to play a part in controlling what the citizen can and cannot do? Where does one draw the line?
Why do we not ban smoking, or fatty foods, or painkillers? These can be oftentimes just as harmful, or just as habit-forming. Even if the masses were to collectively decide on a particular line which they will not cross (for the moment, it seems, that line borders around the fact that the substance makes us not “ourselves”), what of the rights of the few who do so that they’re able to function as part of society, and control their habits to the extent that they lead healthy, fulfilling lives?
And the freedom to lose
The reason it is important to change our perceptions of narcotics and their use and abuse is because seeing them as unacceptable and decrepit allows for a society to remain indifferent when law enforcement agencies take it upon themselves to eliminate drug peddlers as they wish.
Since May, over a 100 dealers have been eliminated in so-called extra-judicial killings, the police and RAB deeming them sacrifices on the altar of “gunfights.” A drug problem, in any society, thrives not because a few people merely wished to make money through destroying the lives of people, but because of the existence of a vacuum, and the existence of enablers.
This vacuum exists through poverty, a lack of opportunities, through depression. Drug abuse knows no class -- merely the type of drug being used. And certain people have taken advantage of this.
And the enablers are law enforcement members themselves. Each one of us has heard of a story where someone was caught with a potla of marijuana only to be released after a few hundred taka slid not-so-surreptitiously under the table.
This is not an argument to treat marijuana as a drug -- what matters is that police officers saw it as a drug and still let it go, at the right price. Who’s to say the same hasn’t happened with yaba for the longest time? Yaba isn’t new, it has existed as a regular party drug for some time now in Dhaka, especially in slightly middle to upper classes.
Most importantly, though, if we allow impunity when it comes to extra-judicial killings just because we think dealers chose a life of death the moment they signed up to peddle drugs, let me reiterate the obvious -- this is the most slipperiest of slopes.
We cannot empower those who protect us to the extent that they can kill as they wish.
Already, reports exist of innocents dying in the crossfires, of falsely accused individuals falling prey to the non-investigative approach of law enforcement.
What if they do the same for other crimes, and other criminals? A single group cannot play judge, jury, and executioner, and it leaves no room for our justice system to work (the fact that our judiciary remains problematic and corrupt is another issue, for another article).
If we live in a society which does not understand rehabilitation, then that society needs rehabilitation itself. If we do not understand the nature of second chances, we have no room left for improvement and none whatsoever for progress.
Vigilantes only work draped in a red costume, breaking the fourth wall, and on a screen.
SN Rasul is an Editorial Assistant at the Dhaka Tribune. Follow him @snrasul.