A few years ago, waiting for a trolley in East Berlin, my wife and I talked with a local woman about life on her side of the Berlin Wall. Living alone, past retirement age, she told of the difficulties she faced - the sense of deprivation and limitation, which even in the richest of East-bloc cities made something as simple as toilet tissue a rare and sought-after commodity. What she said was not treasonous, just frank. As the trolley was slow in coming, we kept talking - until another woman, strolling slowly about the nearly deserted platform, came within earshot. Then she fell silent. As the other woman moved away again, our acquaintance lowered her voice and gestured toward her. ``Party member,'' she explained, and resumed her discourse.
It's a long way from an East Berlin trolley to America's drug problem. But that conversation came back to me when I heard recently about a program for controlling drugs at a New England boarding school. Under new rules, any student knowing of a case of drug use would be required to report the user to the school administration. No questions would be asked, and the accused would never be told the identity of the accuser.
You can sympathize with a school's desire to clamp down on drugs. According to this year's ``Metropolitan Life Survey of the American Teacher'' done by Louis Harris and Associates, students and teachers in US schools identify alcohol and drug abuse as the most serious problem of schools today. Fully half of today's high school students say they know 10 or more fellow students who abuse drugs.
How to control drug abuse? There's wide agreement that effective programs strike at causes, not merely effects. And there's strong support for the idea that, before causes can be addressed, the abuse must come to light.
Hence the prep school's plan. Proponents say it has already worked at other schools. No doubt it has. But what does ``work'' mean here? What, exactly, are we as a society willing to trade away for a ``working'' solution? To what extent does the end justify the means?
In its way, of course, East Berlin ``works.'' '' Communist countries are proud, for example, of their low crime rates, and lack of terrorism. When part of the population is set to spy on another part and when the spies themselves are protected from exposure, the end may seem socially desirable. But what of the means - and of their cost? Isn't there less liberty in a society that consciously breeds distrust among its members than in one that doesn't? Isn't the free expression of ideas worth the difficulties that attend it? Isn't individuality more than a mere inconvenience, easily sacrificed on the altar of collective good?
These are large questions, worthy of the attention they've received through centuries of political philosophy. Weighing the options, however, Western societies have generally answered ``Yes'' - except when threatened by such seemingly intractable problems as drug abuse. Then the agonizing begins. Surely, say well-meaning advocates of strict policing, a little spying can't hurt.
At bottom, these arguments boil down to this: that the common good must take precedence over the sanctity of personal relations. But must it? Isn't there a sense in which the building of a community is itself the highest form of common good? Can you build community on a foundation of big-brotherism, unchallenged gossip, and the drab insularities of suspicion? Must not solid communities be bound together by codes of mutual respect and honor?
This is not to excuse drug abuse. It has no place in such communities - precisely because drugs destroy individuality, corrode the bonds of respect, and turn freedom into license. For those reasons, in fact, a strong, supportive sense of community may well be the best defense against drug abuse. Build that into a school, and you're tackling the root causes of so much drug abuse: alienation, loneliness, and fear of failure. Destroy it, and the halls just may fall silent - save for the whispered words, ``party member.''
A Monday column