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February 18, 2009 -- Vancouver Sun (CN BC)

Editorial: Violent Valentine's Days -- There And Here, Then And Now

By Ehor Boyanowsky, criminologist at Simon Fraser University

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Submachineguns, armoured cars, killings on city streets, in alleyways, on suburban cul-de-sacs (aptly, French for "dead ends"); the citizenry petrified of getting caught in the crossfire.

At least seven deaths, unprecedented carnage in the beautiful city by the water. The names of gangsters in the news: WASP, Irish, Slavic, a cross-section of society. One miraculously surviving shooting victim when asked by police to name his assailant insisted: "I wasn't shot!" Then died.

All part of the turf war in the struggle for control of an illicit trade of immense profitability. I am speaking of Vancouver? Actually, no, merely celebrating the 80th anniversary of the St. Valentine's Day Massacre in Chicago.

Despite the U.S. Justice Department and the Drug Enforcement Agency's bald-faced denial of the facts, the prohibition on legal sales of alcoholic beverages led to an unprecedented era of gang activity, arrests and incarcerations, killings of federal agents, corruption of police and vendetta homicides perhaps most famously exemplified on that fateful day when Al Capone's gang decided to rid themselves of Bugsy Moran and his gang who had been hijacking liquor shipments.

It was part of a bloody era of violence and killings that started to decline only when the Volstead Act was finally repealed.

Why was it ever enacted? Because the first feminist movement in the United States, the Women's Temperance Union, bolstered by church and other social engineering movements argued that alcohol was extremely addictive and led to family distress, unemployment and violence against women and children. That despite the fact that there is not an iota of behavioral or physiological evidence that alcohol causes violent or aggressive behaviour.

What it does do is make imbibers think they are more attractive, better singers, joke tellers, lovers or even dancers than they would otherwise judge themselves to be.

So on a typical day in Vancouver, a metro area of near three million people, perhaps one million will have a drink or more. Many acts will be facilitated, some social, some anti-social, but perhaps only a few hundred will engage in aggressive violence.

Why? Because alcohol is a powerful drug, but it is merely a disinhibitor, hence a social lubricant so that those few harbouring anger and hatred who are not properly socialized or mentally prepared, are more likely to manifest it. In fact since prohibition was repealed, there have been problems with alcohol addiction and health issues, but the vast majority of people's drinking has not led to the downfall of society.

More poignantly almost no one has engaged in violent liquor wars because there are no high stakes -- booze is legal.

It should be noted that president Woodrow Wilson, in his wisdom, vetoed the original Volstead Act but was overruled by Congress, and that modern feminists have moved on to wrongheadedly focus on pornography and men as the causes of violence against women and children, once again with legislative and policy decisions that are tragically devastating for society, but those are other stories.

The repeal of the act led to a dramatic reduction in homicide that lasted until the 1960s hailed an escalation of gang violent crime and homicide that brings us up to the present day.

What coincided with that trend is the frightening escalation in the trafficking of illicit drugs, in spite of the massive response by law enforcement agencies in Canada and internationally, reaching societal crisis proportions in Mexico but catching our attentions and reigniting our fears even in Canada, and especially in the traditionally bucolic environs of Vancouver.

Perhaps most chillingly -- not only as a criminologist but as a social psychologist who studies societal contagion effects -- it came home to me when I realized I personally knew two women who had lost beautiful and innocent young sons to random violence in our entertainment districts.

They were not victims of gang violence but of a secondary phenomenon, machismo-mimicry, that is manifested in gun-wielding and low thresholds for threats to one's ego.

Despite the endless and empty prattling of countless learned commentators regarding the need for increased police resources and other banal, media time fillers -- something we should have learned in the 1930s -- the only panacea for this increasingly anxiety provoking state of affairs confronting, not only our young men but threatening to permeate the community, is the legalization and government regulation of illegal drugs.

The myths regarding their alleged harms are nothing compared to the myths perpetuated by social crusaders to terrible effect, regarding those other evils I have referred to besetting our society.

The jury is in and if we can handle alcohol, the most powerful, addictive and dangerous of drugs, we can handle just about anything.

And everything is readily available right now out there to all of us anyway, but at terrible cost to society. Future St. Valentine's Days deserve kinder, more loving memories.

Ehor Boyanowsky is a criminologist at Simon Fraser University who specializes in violence and aggressive behaviour.

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