Alaska editorial: Palin's trip to New Stuyahok sent the right message

Posted: Sunday, January 14, 2007

The following editorial first appeared in the Anchorage Daily News:

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By itself, the simple fact that Gov. Sarah Palin went to the village of New Stuyahok won't stop the rash of alcohol-related deaths there. Her visit, accompanied by her newly appointed Public Safety commissioner, Walt Monegan, was a symbolic gesture, of course. But it was a genuine gesture of concern and respect that could prompt residents to take stronger measures against alcohol abuse.

One thing is for sure: New Stuyahok is suffering, with five alcohol-related deaths in one year. That's one for every 110 residents. If Anchorage faced a similar plague, alcohol would have killed nearly 2,500 people last year.

A hopeful sign of potential change in New Stuyahok was the huge turnout at the community meeting Palin attended. More than a third of the residents, about 200 people, showed up.

That kind of community attention and concern, properly focused, is what it will take to stem the alcohol-related violence. Solutions can't be imposed from outside the community, no matter how well-meaning the people or ideas are.

Palin was wise to avoid giving advice on whether the village should use Alaska's local-option laws to ban alcohol. That's a local decision. An alcohol ban will only work if there is the will in the community to make it work - and only if it is part of a much wider effort to reduce both the supply of and the demand for alcohol.

Sobriety starts with the choices each individual makes. The alcoholic will not make different choices until he or she feels the consequences of abusive drinking are more painful than the decision to sober up and confront one's own demons.

In that process, the climate of a community can make a difference. In Native villages, a thriving traditional culture helps. So do strong, loving families, economic opportunity, therapeutic support and law enforcement that's swift and just.

That's where state government and the rest of us come in. Palin's visit sent the right message to New Stuyahok: We have no magic cures, but your fellow Alaskans are ready to be partners in any effort that will help.

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