Shoot First


How many Peruvians does it take to kill a baby? About four, apparently, if they have a fighter jet and the help of a U.S. surveillance plane.

If you think that's a sick joke, you're right. But the joke is on us. No matter how hard U.S. officials try to obscure the fact, the Peruvian A-37 that shot down a single-engine plane carrying two missionaries and their children was doing America's bidding.

That's not to say that our government wanted to kill Veronica Bowers or her 7-month-old daughter. Indeed, tapes of the incident are said to show that the American surveillance team repeatedly warned the Peruvian Air Force that the plane it was preparing to attack might not be carrying drug smugglers.

The Peruvians presumably were not gunning for missionaries either. They simply acted precipitously, based on incomplete and erroneous information, and innocent civilians died as a result. That sort of thing happens in war.

Still, there's no denying that this war is directed by the United States, which supports ruthless action against drug traffickers and should not be surprised when its allies get reckless. The killing of Bowers and her daughter was not intended, but something like it was perfectly foreseeable.

There was a time when the U.S. government actually opposed firing on civilian aircraft. Federal law, in compliance with international agreements, prohibited attempts to damage or destroy civil aircraft in flight; it also made assisting such attempts a crime.

That provision became a problem in 1994, when Peru and Colombia announced that they would start shooting down planes suspected of carrying drugs. To preserve U.S. cooperation with those countries, the Clinton administration backed legislation shielding federal employees from criminal prosecution and civil liability for participating in drug interdiction efforts that included attacks on civilian aircraft.

Opponents of the legislation warned that it invited just the sort of incident over which U.S. officials are now wringing their hands. "In a deadly game of chance," said Sen. Nancy Kassebaum (R-Kan.), "this legislation lets the United States help foreign governments shoot down civilian planes based on little more than an educated guess."

Sen. Malcolm Wallop (R-Wyo.) said "abandoning our unconditional opposition to shooting down civil aircraft sends a very bad message…By passing this law, we will encourage Colombia and Peru to become more aggressive in implementing their shootdown policies. Accidents happen all too often without American encouragement."

But it is not just the possibility of "accidents" that makes Peru's shoot-down policy barbaric. It's also the judgment that people who supply Americans with cocaine (assuming they can be accurately identified from a distance) ought to be summarily executed.

Witnesses report that after shooting down the missionaries' plane, the Peruvian Air Force strafed the survivors–Veronica Bowers' husband, James; their 6-year-old son, Cory; and the wounded pilot, Kevin Donaldson–as they struggled to stay afloat in the Amazon River amid flaming wreckage. Would that kind of treatment be OK if it turned out the plane really was carrying cocaine?

Before you answer, consider that drug traffickers merely facilitate what the government is trying to prevent. If the people who actually use drugs deserve only light punishment, it's difficult to understand why the people who assist them deserve to die.

Without the demand generated by those who like to snort or smoke the stuff, no one would be flying cocaine through Peruvian air space. But as long as people want to use cocaine, there will be people to supply them with it.

Interdiction can push cocaine production from one country to another–from Peru to Colombia, for example–and it can pressure traffickers to change their smuggling routes and methods. But because there are so many places where coca can be grown and so many ways of getting cocaine to American consumers, interdiction will never have a lasting impact on supply.

Even over the short term, interdiction is unlikely to have a measurable effect on the retail price of cocaine. As the drug policy scholar Peter Reuter has been pointing out for years, cocaine's value before it gets to this country is a small fraction of its ultimate price, so the cost of replacing seized cocaine isn't noticeable once it trickles down to consumers.

Thus it's hard to see what even the drug warriors gained because of U.S. support for Peru's brutal tactics. On the other hand, it's clear what the Bowers family lost.