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Back Off or I’ll Snap


Home from a four-day gigathon, from the Oregon coast to Mt. Hood, with my ears still ringing, desperate for shut-eye, and flat out of luck. Between the neighbor’s crack-of-dawn leaf blower and the morning headlines, who can fall asleep? Would-be nurse on rampage in Arizona … wild teen gunplay in Oklahoma … states and counties in death-penalty feeding-frenzy in sniper case … murder rates up … theft rising … rape increasing … Bush urging everyone to “do your job as an American.”

Sniper bullets in Maryland and Virginia killed 10 people. With the suspects in custody, things got “back to normal” in a land where 10 children are shot to death every day. And where upwards of 47 people a day shoot themselves, not counting hunters.

30,000 Americans were killed by guns in 1998. While Chief Charles Moose was hunting the snipers, roughly 450 other people were gunned down in the U. S., not counting suicides. I don’t know how many were garroted, smothered, duct-taped to the railroad tracks or driven mad by rally monkeys and frantic red plastic thundersticks while trying to watch a goddamn baseball game.

“Back off or I’ll snap,” warned Barry Bonds as reporters gathered around his locker. After the infernal racket he had to endure for a week, it’s a wonder he didn’t leave the field in a strait-jacket, bawling like Dusty Baker’s three-year-old.

Imagine what a real baseball fan, assuming such a thing exists in Southern California, must have felt like, sitting with scorecard in lap trying desperately to see the game through a quaking bamboo thicket of red nervous energy. Imagine what our hypothetical fan had to pay for the seat.

I’m waiting for them to start selling thundersticks at symphony concerts and the theater. Why not? Most of the corporate seat-holders are bored out of their minds by fauns, sylphides and oboes and furious at having to turn off their cell phones. Let’s have some real catharsis for a change. Hell, I think they ought to hand the balloon tubes out whenever Congress is in session. It will lend a whole new dimension to the art of the filibuster. And it will look great on television when the president gives the State of the Union speech. Maybe the Republicans could get red balloon tubes and the Democrats could get blue ones.

Or maybe we’d need three colors, to match the president’s three moods. Most of the time, either he’s apoplectic with rage when we see him, making his agitated, bitter demands, or he’s so depressed-looking he seems almost comatose, barely able to keep his eyelids up as he reads from the teleprompter. (Once in a while we catch a glimpse of the relaxed glad-hander, the ballpark greeter of old, giving people some “touch” and a friendly smirk.)

“People are crazy, times are strange,” says Dylan.

Alabama was first to announce that it would seek the death penalty for the sniper suspects. An echo with an epicenter near the Potomac swiftly followed, with Maryland and Virginia claiming rights. On the networks, experts discuss the jurisdictional squabbles, adding “if they are guilty” as a routine disclaimer, the way they used to say “alleged.”

Think of these experts as just so many people waving red hyperbolical thundersticks, drowning out the point of view of anyone who believes that the country is already too violent, and that the solution might begin with asking the country to stop killing its own citizens, whatever they may have done.

As long as my government has the right to kill me, then I exist at its pleasure. Shouldn’t it be the other way around?

Of late the focus of anti-death penalty activists has been on using DNA to prove that many of the people on death row are in fact innocent. That’s wonderful, when the innocent are spared and set free. But it’s not the real issue.

Should a government have the power to kill the people it exists to serve, that’s the question. It’s just as appalling when the government executes the guilty. It is a power so frightening that some of us, and I’m not talking about lawyers, ought to be inspired to defend even the worst among us from it.

And to think, an hour ago I’d have approved the death penalty for operating a leaf blower before noon.

“The pure products of America go crazy,” said William Carlos Williams.

Could the good Dr. Williams have envisioned Johnny Muhammad? Millionaire baseball players? Mobs with thundersticks? Or the spectacle of three or four states in a bidding war to put to death people who haven’t even been brought to trial yet?

DAVID VEST writes the Rebel Angel column for CounterPunch. He is a poet and piano-player for the Pacific Northwest’s hottest blues band, The Cannonballs.

He can be reached at:

Visit his website at


DAVID VEST writes the Rebel Angel column for CounterPunch. He and his band, The Willing Victims, have just released a scorching new CD, Serve Me Right to Shuffle. His essay on Tammy Wynette is featured in CounterPunch’s new collection on art, music and sex, Serpents in the Garden.

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