How ‘The Wire’ Explains America’s Fight Against ISIS

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September 23, 2014 6:00 a.m.

“The Wire” is one of television’s crown jewels and remains a cultural touchtone, but it’s not just a closely detailed vision of how institutions in an American city are failing individuals that gives it such a place. David Simon, writer and director (pictured, left, next to Wendell Pierce who played Detective Bunk), also threaded through his drama clear allusions to our ventures into the Middle East, and strangely, as we reenter the chaos of Iraq and confront the rise of ISIS, these allusive yet potent metaphors are still playing out.

Season three began with the demolition of two of Baltimore’s public housing units central to the previous two seasons. In a post 9/11 world, it was not possible to watch the depiction of people running from the enveloping dust of two towers without knowing how this sets the scene for our path to Iraq. It is important to note the metaphors David Simon offers are not intended to be perfect: Baltimore drug dealers are not Middle Eastern leaders, and Baltimore’s hardest streets are not quite Baghdad. “The Wire” is directing us to something else: the perils of trying to accomplish good in a world we don’t understand. What exactly those cautions are, we will get to in a moment.

The fall of the towers accelerates a drug turf war (the factions of which selling product with nicknames like WMDs). The Baltimore Police Department goes all in to bring down drug lords Barksdale and Bell. When a senior officer lectures a young detective about the ineffectiveness of previous tactics, Simon is writing as much about the failure of the war on drugs as he is about the war on terrorism.

Officer Colvin says, “You call something a war and pretty soon everybody gonna be running around acting like warriors. They gonna be running around on a damn crusade.” He explains that if you’re at war, then you are going to need an enemy, which soon becomes everybody on the corners. He adds that quickly, “the neighborhood that you’re supposed to be policing, that’s just occupied territory.”

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So they try something new, an unapproved drug legalization zone — Hamsterdam — in the hope that it will reduce crime overall. When ambitious politicians and media learn of it, the new effort is shut down. The war on the streets failed to remake the world in the way it intended, to protect the people its stated intention was to help. The allegory reaches its peak when one dealer and enforcer says to his boss Avon, doubting the wisdom of continuing to battle their rivals: “It don’t matter who did what to whom. Fact is, we went to war and now there ain’t no going back … If it’s a lie, then we fight on the lie. But we gotta fight.”

By the end of the season, Avon is headed to prison and Stringer is gone forever. Though it is not shown to the viewer, the final episode of the season was entitled, “Mission Accomplished.” The demand for drugs is unchanged, and the police inadvertently created a power vacuum. That status will not stand, and, shades of ISIS stepping into the turmoil of a new Iraq, that vacuum will soon be filled by someone far worse than the police ever dreamed of: Marlo.

The city’s horror at Marlo’ disregard for human life is equivalent to how America feels when they are presented videos of James Foley being beheaded on the news. The old drug rulers took lives too, but they also maintained a certain order that preserved some rules, such as generally killing only when they felt strategy compelled them to. Marlo is unbound by such conventions. He intends, in fact, to flaunt them. Marlo tells an ill-fated security guard, “You want it to be one way. But it’s the other way.” He is speaking to us too on how our power reaches its limits to change the world to the way we want all to be.

In a show famous for painting all of its characters in realistic gray areas, Marlo reminded us that there is irredeemable evil, possessed only with sociopathic desire to impose one’s will. Just as Baltimore had little choice but to destroy Marlo and end his rampage, America feels the necessity to do the same with ISIS. But we are still left to consider the wisdom of many of our post-9/11 actions that create situations far worse that what we inherited.

President Obama has emphasized how ultimate solutions must come through diplomacy, our ability to facilitate leaders of differing factions working together, and our actions being taken in concert with other Middle Eastern countries. David Simon’s vision in “The Wire” argues we cannot win if we see everyone in the Middle East as the enemy. Every step from here must be done thoughtfully.

Paul Kendrick is the co-author of Douglass and Lincoln: How a Revolutionary Black Leader and a Reluctant Liberator Struggled to End Slavery and Save the Union (Walker Books) and Sarah’s Long Walk (Beacon Press). He can be followed on Twitter @PaulKendrick84.

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