The innocent age of slapstick

Politics today has more than a little of the burlesque about it. It is the electoral equivalent of a music hall full of bearded ladies, 200-pound fat boys, snake men, limbless fakirs, Afghans with elephant ears, twisted midgets and fire-breathing giants. Recently I have tried to refrain from commenting over much on the imbecile shenanigans of Ahmadinejad, Berlusconi, Palin, Brock etc. or the unsubtle, yet obtuse dealings of Mr Putin or Mr Sarkozy, but sometimes the week’s burden of freak-show absurdity simply cries out for a well-aimed custard pie to take it out of the sinister and glaucous world of the burlesque and back to the realm of slapstick where it ought to belong. The custard pie is the ultimate projectile for a political statement. You don’t need a license to carry one. You make your point (if you have one). You make the daily papers. Offense is duly taken. And custard pies don’t kill. Unless you die laughing. Unfortunately, this was not a slapstick kind of week.

Born on 9/11

Christina Green was born on September 11, 2001. One of those precious babies who were to emerge from the horror of that day with all their innocence intact, she was chosen for the 50 “Faces of Hope” representing children from 50 states who were born on 9/11. Her picture appeared in a book, from which the proceeds went to charity. Christina had recently been elected class president in 4th grade and was apparently interested in politics, which is radical enough in a nine-year old, but not so radical when one considers her date of birth. She went to the little rally at the shopping mall with a neighbour who “thought she might be interested in meeting a woman who had been elected to public office”.

22-year-old Jared Lee Loughner is a young man with “a troubled past”. He was already known to the police in Tucson at the time of this weekend’s events, having been arrested several times without specific charges being brought. This was mainly due to his behaviour at Pima Community College where he was by all accounts a poor student and frequent troublemaker, disrupting classes and being generally disorderly on campus. He was later thrown out of Pima, where they have sworn only to take him back if he receives “mental health clearance” (that proviso would have struck out at least half of my teachers).

Happiness is a warm gun

Loughner was arrested in 2007 on the misdemeanour charge of possessing “drug paraphernalia”. He paid a $20 fine and completed a court-ordered program for drug offenders. Three months later he ran a stop sign. A further record shows a 2008 arrest on a “local charge” (later dismissed) in Marana, a town to the northwest of Tucson. So our boy’s hardly Charles Manson, but then he’s not Mother Theresa either. Now, under state of Arizona legislation, a person must present a concealed weapons permit before being allowed to purchase a handgun. Loughner, lacking such a permit, was required to pass an FBI background check. He did so “immediately and without incident”.

Let’s just pause for a moment there and dolly in. Yes, you read correctly, an apparently disturbed young man with a troubled past, a record of disruptive and attention-getting behaviour, who has had minor run-ins with the police, goes down to his local firearms store and is cleared by the FBI to purchase a 9mm Glock semi-automatic, with a 33-shot extended magazine without ever having previously held a weapons license. If the gun shop were obliged to phone the nearest police precinct, Arizonans, Americans and the rest of the world might not be shaking their heads in confusion and sorrow today.

“Soft” vs “hard” security

But of course, the FBI is not going to bar Loughner from buying a gun. Young Jared has committed no federal offenses. He hasn’t even committed any state offenses. Indeed, as far as I know he hasn’t even infringed the disorderly conduct regulations of the fine city of Tucson sufficiently to merit being actually charged with anything. In legal terms, the lad’s got a pair of reasonably clean Y-fronts. And yet everyone who knows him has him pegged as a troublemaker, a delusional self-mythologizer, a weird kid with wacko ideas. And there, in a nutshell, we have the typical dilemma of paper-based regulation versus discretionary regulation.

In our current world, which is a paper chaser’s world, it is the hard docket that counts: the record, the affidavit, the charge sheet … the legally documented history of a person. In the soft-security, discretionary world many of us would prefer to see, what counts is the opinion, the hunch, the gut feeling, the experience in the field and on the ground, the identikit built up over years by schools and the workplace, neighbours and associates, friends and family, local police, youth groups, the church, family doctor etc. If the citizens of Arizona absolutely have to maintain the “right to bear arms” (which I strongly dispute on constitutional grounds, but that’s another matter), then surely it is to the sum of knowledge and general savvy built up by a cross-section of the afore-mentioned persons and instances that they should turn when a strange young loner wants to purchase the street killer’s number one weapon of choice … not to the FBI. What could they know about a local boy?

Loony tune? Yes. Slapstick? Sadly, no

Well actually, they could have known quite a lot, if they had cared to. For it turns out that a closer look at Jared Loughner reveals a matrix for every American oddball, prime-time TV weirdo waiting to germinate. He failed to get into the army on the basis of a urine test. He had threatened the government in his various loopy videos. He is a sympathizer of the white nationalist group American Renaissance (for whom he apparently was too loony-tune, as they want nothing to do with him). His school don’t want him anywhere near them either, on grounds of mental instability, and he is a bit too enthusiastic about firearms. In other words, if the Arizona state offices of the FBI were a little more memo-based and little less record-based, they might already have taken an interest in Mr Loughner under the terms of the much maligned (and rightly so, for the most part) “Homeland Security Act”, and none of this would have happened. Or at least it might have happened, but very differently. Let me paint you a picture …

It’s a bright morning in Tucson, Arizona, a town we all know from pop-songs, a cheerful enough place. Democratic Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords leaves her car, together with District Judge John Roll and advances to the rope line. While greeting constituents and answering questions she is hit suddenly in the face with a custard-pie thrown by an out-of-control young man who has clearly forgotten to take his medication. Judge Roll, who is splattered with pastry and gelatine fruit debris, is furious. Some of the custard and cream splashes a few other bystanders, ruining their clothes and hair. A breathless tinkling noise can be faintly heard in the crowd as the security people wrestle the culprit to the ground: the sound of a little girl laughing fit to burst.

Edwin Drood

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