One of the least understood aspects of the drug problem is the degree to which it is in the end a moral and spiritual problem.

I continue to be amazed at how often people I speak to in treatment centers refer to drugs as the great lie, the great deception, indeed as a product of the Great Deceiver. An astonishing number of people in treatment have described crack cocaine to me simply as “the Devil.” This has come up too often and too spontaneously in conversation to be ignored.

You will know what I mean, then, when I say that in visiting treatment centers, prisons, inner-city communities, and public housing projects across the country over the past twenty-one months I’ve seen what I can only describe as the face of evil. Those people who doubt that there is evil in the world need to travel a few weeks with me on the drug circuit.

Recently a police officer told me about going into an apartment after receiving a complaint and finding there a four-year-old child and a one-year-old child. They had been in there by themselves for three days. The four-year-old had been left by his mother to care for the one-year-old. Now my wife and I have a six-year old and a one-year old at home. I know something about four-year-olds and their capabilities. Babysitting is not one of them. I don’t suppose that anyone would deny that for a four-year old to be left in charge of a one-year old for three days is not very wise child rearing. When the police entered and spoke to the children, the one-year-old was still holding on to the hand of her older brother. And the little boy said, “This is my sister and my mother told me to take care of her and I will.” The little boy was manfully trying to do his best. While the police were there, the mother came in with a roll of money in her hand. She had been out walking the streets to get the money to support her crack habit.

That’s not the kind of story that’s going to make the headlines or the evening news. But that’s the kind of story that is being told too often every day in communities all over America. Child-abuse experts tell me that they think that much of the dramatic increase in child abuse and neglect is due to drugs.

You may have heard the story from the West Coast of a six-month-old child who died of an overdose of crack. How does a six-month old die of an overdose of crack? Because her mother or father, we’re not sure which, inhaled crack and then, to quiet the baby, blew crack into the baby’s mouth until the baby was destroyed.

Or you may have heard the story from Detroit of the woman who owed a debt to her drug dealer and handed over her thirteen-year-old daughter to the drug dealer in order to pay the debt.

If these kinds of incidents are not the face of evil in our time, I don’t know what is. That is why a spiritual and a moral response is required. Those who believe that because of modernity the categories of right and wrong, of good and evil, no longer apply need to take a close, hard look at the drug problem. If one doesn’t believe in the struggle of the psychomachia ”what I was taught to recognize as the struggle between good and evil for possession of the human soul”then one might never get to the heart of this drug problem.

I think that the drug question, although serious in itself, is really symptomatic of a much wider problem. And that has to do with the neglect of the most important things. The most important things have to do with the teaching and passing on of certain true and time-honored values to our children. When we neglect these things, it doesn’t matter what wealth or knowledge we have. For in neglecting the task of transmitting our fundamental values, we lose everything for which this country and our Judeo-Christian religious tradition stand. A recent news report in the New York Times on teenage health problems makes the point inadvertently, but very well:

America’s teenagers are plagued with an array of physical and emotional health problems that make them less healthy than their parents were at that age, the [National Association of State Boards of Education and the American Medical Association] Commission said today. The panel, including medical, health, and business leaders, said hundreds of thousands of adolescents and teenagers suffered from excessive drug use, unplanned pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases, social and emotional problems that can lead to academic failure or suicide. As a result, many teenagers are unprepared to achieve successful lives as adults, the panel says. Unlike the problems of earlier generations, the Commission said, those of today’s teenagers are rooted in behavior rather than in physical illnesses like infections and diseases. Excessive drinking, drug use, sex, and violence are major threats to the current generation.

Note that one sentence: “Unlike the problems of earlier generations . . . those of today’s teenagers are rooted in behavior rather than in physical illnesses . . . .” So, having stated that teenagers’ problems are rooted in behavior, what does the Commission recommend? It recommends that teenagers be guaranteed access to health services and that schools take on a larger role in improving their students’ health. It says that schools should establish health centers as well as offer classes that go beyond customary hygiene lessons to include sex education. In other words, having pointed out that the problem is not, for the most part, a health problem, the Commission goes on basically to recommend better medical health as the solution.

Why is that? Because that’s the only solution that the conventional wisdom”at least in some circles”understands. It understands physical health, but it does not understand spiritual health. The approach of the Commission indicates the intellectual poverty of modernity, with its reliance on technological, psychological, and governmental solutions for moral and spiritual problems. The evidence in this case is clear. Never has our scientific, technological, or governmental know-how been greater, and never has the condition of our young people been worse.

What’s the answer? We need the decade of the nineties to be a time when once again we talk directly about right and wrong, about values and character, about education as the architecture of the soul. What our children need”and all one has to do is go to schools and talk to children to see it”is not for the most part medicine. Where medicine is needed, by all means let it be provided. But what these children need most is guidance. They need an example. They need moral principles. They need to know what is worthy of being loved and what is worthy of being defended.

If we wish to help our children, we need the courage to say in classrooms in this country”including the classrooms in our public schools”that there is a difference between right and wrong. And to say in those same classrooms that the greatest institution is the family, the family of husband and wife, male and female, joined. Schools are there, after all, to enlighten, not to obscure; to point people to a better way of life, not a worse way of life. That is true of the art and the music we present to our children as well. It is not an act of censorship to distinguish between a work of art or a piece of music that lifts the human spirit and one that degrades it.

Much now is settled in the wider world. During his visit here earlier this year. Lech Walesa reflected on the dramatic political revolutions occurring in countries all over the world. He reminded all of us that the job of social reconstruction is not finished once the right political system is established. To Americans in particular he said, “Please take care of this country. If you do not lead us, who will?” We have led the world in the aspiration for freedom, and much of the world has taken our cue and adopted our principles. Now comes the time for America to lead in an area beyond the political. We need now to show the world that we understand what it means to care for children.


William J. Bennett recently resigned as Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy.