This past Saturday, I was stung by a hornet for the first time in almost 10 years. As eight of those years were spent living in Georgia — a state that, if it ever learns how to militarize redjacket swarms, will singlehandedly recapture all of America for the Confederacy — I’m a little proud of that accomplishment.
I mainly credit my advanced evasive maneuvers; whenever I see something that might sting me, bite me or otherwise exist a little too close for comfort, I step to the side in a manner that can only be described as what happens when an epileptic octopus is shoved into a room full of strobe lights and dangling electrical cords. I once tore open my own shirt pocket in fear-spasm when a cicada bumped into me a few summers ago.
It’s funny, because I do have a relatively high tolerance for pain; it’s the shock of the moment, the immediate knowledge of coming pain, that affects me more than anything. That day, Michelle and I were out running in a wooded trail near our apartment. It happened with almost a mile to go and, though I slapped frantically at my arm and shrieked out a few phrases I really shouldn’t have on a trail that’s pretty popular with families, we finished the run without stopping. In fact, I probably ran even faster.
Afterward, walking the half-mile back to our apartment, the thing had started to swell up around the still-visible puncture mark: white in the center, and faintly pinkish on the way out. It was smack on the left forearm muscle, which had started to seize ever so slightly, and which is still noticeably more swollen than my right one. Texture-wise, it looks like someone slipped a sand dollar just underneath my skin. Shock passed, I can regard it objectively as it segues into simply another element of the world that encases me.
This initial realizing-of-pain is, I think, one of the reasons I was so hesitant to read Austin Rhodes’ column the week after I took him to task for his borderline demonizing of Trayvon Martin. I can handle criticism, I can handle backlash. It’s only really tough to listen to when it comes from people or institutions I respect; in graduate school, I feared and looked forward to Tuesday nights when Alice Friman — GCSU’s marvelous poet-in-residence — would produce copies of the poems I’d turned in the previous Friday; copies now, of course, bleeding profusely. The sessions were more enlightening and helpful than terrifying, of course, but that possibility, the dreaded awareness, was pervasive.
Back to Austin, regrettably. I wrote that initial column with the same sort of wariness that I would poke a blind, three-legged honey badger with a shock stick: it might thrash around impotently in response, but it could at least make your life a little difficult for a while. Plus, I’ve been told time and time again not to feed trolls; if you could anthropomorphize Rhodes’ and a Kardashian’s pathologically attention-seeking behavior, it would resemble the climax of “Pacific Rim.” For even nerdier readers, let me put it this way: everyone knows what happens when you fire a volley of missiles into the face of the Great Evil in “The Fifth Element.”
I said earlier that one of the things that helps me get over or forget any sort of pain is to try and regard it with an objective eye. Extract it from the self, place it into the larger context of the world, and you will truly begin to wonder how you ever let so little a matter so grieve you. So when I finally went back to read Austin’s column, “Judge Thugs? Damn Straight!” I was both relieved and perplexed: how, truly, could something be so predictably stupid?
I don’t want to spend a lot of time dissecting this mess, but here’s the short version: inferring parallels to Trayvon Martin that could only exist in the most narrow of minds, Rhodes recounts the story of one Travis Berrian, a man who was himself gunned down when he opened fire in a room full of armed law enforcement officers. As if implying that a convicted felon with a death wish was exactly the same kind of person as a trouble-making teenager — as if there’s any other kind of teenager! Ha ha! Amiright, Austin? — didn’t constitute enough brazen, drooling insanity, we’re then treated to this:
“21 years ago I called for the mandated physical castration of convicted serial child molesters, and I have asked that those not yet in custody commit suicide if the urge to molest is moving them to illegal action. Throughout the years I have celebrated the executions of Ted Bundy, Timothy McVeigh and John Wayne Gacy. I am scheduled to be at the state execution of double murderer Willie Palmer, if it ever happens, and I will dance a jig the day Renaldo Rivera gets the needle for his sick, murderous rampage. I hate criminals, I hate those who harm innocents and I hate a system that seems to coddle these animals more than it corrects them.
Who am I to judge? I am someone, like most of you, who would never kill an innocent human being for love or money. I will judge killers, and those who attempt to kill, much and often. We all do, and we all better. Tiptoe around the death of a thug? Not me. Not now, not ever.”
I’d like to pause and thank Austin for fluffing my word count. Indisputably, this man’s bloodlust cannot be sated.
Why acknowledge that the upbringings of Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacy were characterized by psychological, physical and sexual abuse? Because it would complicate this empirical hate for criminals that Rhodes seems to harbor. In his world, there is no room for gray areas: bad is bad, and bad must be punished, no questions asked. He despises “a system that seems to coddle these animals more than it corrects them,” and glosses over the inherent rhetorical canyon that exists between “coddle” and “correct.”
What does he mean? Is he referring to the programs in place to try and rehabilitate the incarcerated, to help them learn a trade and thereby avoid returning to a life of crime upon release? Prison music programs? Library study? Service dog training? Truly, no good can, has or ever will, come of these things.
I admit I was nervous to read that column. But the moment passed and, upon realizing that Austin Rhodes wants all criminals, regardless of transgression, to be treated like Alex in “A Clockwork Orange,” he wafted, like that film, into the realm of the surreal, the garish, the comic nightmare.