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Brilliant argument: To best understand the hunt for bin Laden, you need to understand HBO's 'The Wire'

By on May 11, 2011

Simply put, The Wire — not just the greatest, most important TV show of all time, but, in my opinion, the greatest artistic effort produced in this country during the last 25 years — refuses to subside from our cultural consciousness. Just last month, MacArthur Award winner (they give that award for genius, mind you), David Simon brilliantly re-argued the stupidity of the so-called War on Drugs. Simon’s latest television effort, Treme, does what no other fictional program can do: entertaining an audience while scolding it for abandoning some of the very tenets of civilization.

Now, in the wake of the killing of Osama bin Laden, several pundits are drawing a parallel between the fictional crime-fighting story weaved on ‘The Wire’ with the intelligence operation put in place to hunt down the world’s most wanted man.

The thesis began with this post, which was subsequently expounded upon by Andrew Sullivan:

For the death of bin Laden was the triumph not ofJack Bauer, but ofLester Freamon. The information that led to bin Laden’s deathdoes not appear to have beenwater-boarded out of anyone. For those poor souls who have not memorized all five seasons of “The Wire”, Mr Freamon is a Baltimore detective with a gift for the paper trail. No guns, no street work, just document upon document, brick by brick of patient, steady analysis.SEAL Team Six was on the ground, and of course they deserve respect and admiration, but let’s spare a thought too for theoffice work that put them there.

There’s an irony behind DiA’s tribute. One running theme in the wire is that the FBI’s war on drugs has been drained of resources by the war on terror (and so cops on the city narcotics squad can’t get the help they would have got a few years earlier when they’re onto something big). And a second irony: while the show honors the work of good police tracking drug dealers, it casts the war on drugs itself as completely futile, counterproductive. Of course the same argument has often been made about the war on terror: that it has stimulated the activity it’s meant to squelch whiledraining the country of vital resources. Though there’s a difference: terror must be countered. The intelligence/detective/police/targeted military action that DiA salutes here, no one would gainsay — it’s torture and invasion and occupation that have led us astray. In the war on drugs, the target itself — traffic in drugs — is questionable.

Now, Time’s Joe Klein has picked up on Sullivan and written:

…But there were also striking similarities to the war in Iraq, oft-noted by some of my intelligence sources back when that war was flaming: In the tv show, the conflict between the slow-moving, hierarchical, unimaginative Baltimore police department and the horizontal, guerilla-like, constantly innovating drug gangs. Sound familiar?

In Iraq, success?uch as it was?nly came when the US military flattened out its decision-making structure, began dealing directly with (that is, buying) tribes and instituting a form of community policing (counter-insurgency) that provided security for the locals who in turn provided information about where the bad guys were. The special unit in The Wire was a classic, counterinsurgency/special ops force?own to the quirky, creative personalities of the team? members. The drug dealers were a classic guerrilla insurgency, down to the chaotic, murderous rivalry among factions.

Let’s hope that’s where the parallels to The Wire end and there isn’t another ‘Marlo’ to replace Osama bin Laden’s Avon Barksdale.

P.S. If you want to see one of The Wire’s best scenes, which is also a brilliant example of the intelligence-gathering process, watch this now-famous scene where two detectives use nothing but the F-word to express themselves:

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