Skip to content

Season 3 of The Wire

November 6, 2008

OK, it wasn’t necessarily that I learned anything brand new, but that some of the ideas I had before were reinforced. Basically it comes down to two things that, in the show, were really one: (1) morality is garbage, and (2) legalizing drugs within free zones (I always called them “immunity zones”) can work.

When I say that morality is garbage, that’s not to say that I’m an evil serpent trying to tempt virgins into eating apples and laying with strange men (isn’t that how it goes?). No, it’s quite the opposite indeed. Being something of a stoic myself, I’m quite the fond of restraint and don’t embrace hedonism. I don’t think the world should be a free-for-all; we shouldn’t all be shooting up in dark allies and fornicating with everything that moves, or at least not in my opinion. But that’s really what it comes down to: morality is based on opinions, at its very core. There are no moral absolutes. Morals are strange things people came up with (like gods) to explain things they didn’t yet understand and to keep people in order. I’m not saying that I disagree with all people’s morals, because I don’t, but living in accordance with these things we’re told are absolutes creates circumstances that are at odds with reality.

Humans are the only animals that live by these codes. Every other animal is amoral, doing what needs to be done in order to survive. Nature itself is amoral. So why then do humans, as animals, have these arbitrary codes to live by? Because humans often like to think they are of another order, that they aren’t a part of the animal kingdom, and that they don’t belong to nature. But in reality, of course, they are. OK, OK… that’s not exactly the point. How does it all work in practice?

I’m sure that the writers of the show didn’t mean to make a statement on morality or ethics, but to me, someone who is simply a viewer with his own ideas, seeing character after character take exception to “Hamsterdam” just demonstrated how ineffective these imaginary absolute codes are.

For those that haven’t seen the show, I’ll summarize what happened.

In the first episode of the season, the city council (the head of which is planning on running for mayor, as we find out later) is putting pressure on both the police department and the mayor to reduce crime throughout the city. In a meeting among the higher-ups within the police department, all of the District Commanders are instructed to reduce felonies in their district by 5%. Additionally, they are told that murders city-wide will be held below 275. Though the Commissioner and Deputy don’t come right out and say it, it’s implied that stats can be falsified and cases can be bumped down in order to meet these demands by telling their men to reduce felonies any way they can, no matter what, or else risk their jobs.

Although he made a brief appearance in season two, this is where we meet Major Howard “Bunny” Colvin for real. In this meeting he acknowledges that there are ways to reclassify felonies, but with some audacity he asks, boldly, “how do you make a body disappear?”

But, as anyone knows, things don’t just happen because we say we want them to happen. Real crimes didn’t reduce even though that’s what the higher-ups had said needed to be done. Late in episode two, the Major addresses his men with what I think is a pretty damn good speech:

Somewheres, back in the dawn of time, this district had itself a civic dilemma of epic proportion. The city council had just passed a law that forbid alcoholic consumption in public places—on the streets, and on the corners. But the corner is, and it was, and it always will be the poor man’s lounge. It’s where a man wants to be on a hot summer’s night. It’s cheaper than a bar, catch a nice breeze, watch the girls go by. But a law is a law. The western cops rollin’ by, what were they gonna do? If they arrested every dude out there for tippin’ back a High Life there’d be no other time for any other kind of police work. And if they looked the other way they’d open themselves to all kinds of flaunting—all kinds of disrespect.

Now, this is before my time when it happened, but somewhere back in the ’50s or ’60s there was a small moment of god-damn genius by some nameless smokehound who comes out the cut-rate one day and on his way to the corner, he slips that just-bought pint of elderberry into a paper bag. A great moment of civic compromise. That small wrinkled-ass paper bag allowed the corner boys to have their drink in peace, and it gave us permission to go and do police work—the kind of police work that’s actually worth the effort, that’s worth actually taking a bullet for.

Dozerman, he got shot last night trying to buy three vials. Three! There’s never been a paper bag for drugs… until now.

(A video of this speech can be found on YouTube.)

When it comes time to fudge the stats in order to make the department look good, Major Colvin opts instead to keep his integrity intact and to show what really happened if for no other reason than he’s sick of the shit. The result? An accurate reflection of what’s going on in the streets: a 2% rise in crime. And of course the bosses are pissed, which he simply takes with a smirk.

The next time he addresses his men he directs them to corral all drug trafficking to three designated areas within the district. It’s a tough sell, but he gets the officers to accept the orders by telling them it’s a tactical decision: once all of the dealers and addicts alike are settled into the free zones, and they’re nice and comfortable, they’ll go in and make mass arrests. Not long after, the orders are carried out, and with this, Hamsterdam is created.

Major Colvin solved the riddle and throughout the remainder of the season the viewer is shown that it’s working brilliantly. Crime drops a staggering 14% across the western district, and even in the free zones, drug use and other petty stuff aside, crime is down in these areas, too. The drug game is safer. Guns aren’t allowed and fights are broken up. From what I recall, in the five weeks Colvin’s “experiment” ran, there were a handful of ODs, a handful of robberies, and one murder. Compared to the drug scene when it was out on the corners, it’s a huge improvement.

Nobody liked what they saw, though. Colvin continued telling anyone who reacted with disgust that it was just a tactical deployment. But of course he was lying, as he himself recognized and acknowledged that as soon as the free zones are raided, the drugs would go back to the corners and crime would go back to the levels it was at before. He’d stumbled upon something that worked, but nobody else wanted to admit it.

Of course Hamsterdamn was ugly. Objectively, though, it was better than before, and this was demonstrated both by statistics and through big-picture thinking.

Imagine someone coming upon it for the first time: If someone were to walk through a clean city where crime and drug use wasn’t a problem, and then came across a few blocks where everything wretched was tolerated, it’s reasonable to guess such a person would react negatively. In comparison with the clean streets around it, the free zone would look like an absolute hellhole. But it’s the very concentration of all of the bad shit in one place that makes it look so bad. Before it was all in one place things were just as bad, just spread out. That spread, in effect, also made larger areas unsafe and ugly. Concentrated ugliness, in comparison with ugliness scattered throughout, might look worse, but it does far less damage.

The fact is, it worked, and if it weren’t for moral outrage, it could have continued working, perhaps indefinitely. Nobody who was outraged with the experiment was outraged over it being ineffective. No, quite the contrary: they were outraged over the legalization of drugs, over the surrender in the drug war. They had been defeated in a moral war. Evil had prevailed. Even though that amount of evil had been drastically reduced, even though that evil was affecting fewer people, it had prevailed.

But those outraged morally at the triumph of evil were ignoring the facts, and therefore ignoring reality. It wasn’t that evil had prevailed, because the evil was always there. And since both the amount and the affect of it had been reduced, one could argue equally as well (or probably better) that the said evil was being defeated. (This is, generally, how “least harm” ethical codes work.) In reality, crime had been reduced. In reality, everyone in the free zones—buyers and sellers—was already in the drug game beforehand. In reality, the city was safer for everyone. And with needle exchanges and other health services in the areas, it was even safer for the drug users to use drugs. (Personally this isn’t an aspect of it I support, but if some people demand it, I have no reason to want to stop it. I think people should be allowed to do as they’re naturally inclined to do up until the point where their actions negatively affect those around them or the community. This includes being allowed the freedom to self-destruct. But hey, if you want to keep them alive so they can keep usin’, I won’t argue.)

The Wire was a TV show, and because of this the situation presented is a hypothetical. Given the realism, across the board, of the show, however, I think it presents it in a believable fashion. I see no large holes in the situation as shown, so I accept it as a reasonable simulation. And given conclusions I’ve come to in life, I continue to assert the value of removing any artificial filters when looking at issues, whether those filters are moral, political, economic, or otherwise, because doing so allows one to see what is really happening clearly. When we see things clearly, then we can make informed decisions. We don’t need the pretext.

But more on the failures of morality and its incompatibility with reality on another day. Or several other days, more likely. I’ve got more Nietzsche on the reading list and every other topic I’ve wanted to touch involves moral thinking and filterless thought, so it’ll pop up.

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: