SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
February 24, 2013

Mr. Bad Example

 

My first impulse, as always, was to delete the stupid email and forget about it. My first impulses are usually right with these things. It was an obvious ruse of some sort, a worthless and unimaginative prank. A woman I’d never heard of sent a note informing me she was a television producer from a well-known science program, and was wondering if I might be willing to participate in an episode they were working on.

            My finger was sliding toward that delete key when I paused. The subject of the show, she said, was the biology of violence.

            Okay, so that sounded interesting. It also didn’t sound like something someone would make up as part of a prank. If it was a prank, it’s much more likely I would’ve been told the subject of the show was some blind crap. That violence angle took some imagination.

            She apparently wanted to talk to me because I had that history with the suicide business all those many, many years ago. Yes, fine, whatever. I could tell a few stories. But the biology of violence? There’s a subject I’ve thought about maybe a bit too much over the years.

            Still not sure, and not particularly eager to be duped yet again, I saved the note and started doing a little research.

            It only took a few minutes to determine the woman was legit, as were the other people she mentioned who would be working on the episode. Unless this really was an extraordinarily elaborate prank (a good paranoid needs to take the possibility into account). But no, this would have been too much work for something I could simply delete and forget. I think.

            Despite those lingering doubts, I wrote back and said I’d give it a go.

            The next day I was on the phone with the producer and the reporter who’d be doing the interview. I generally have my doubts about science reporters, given the level of incompetent science coverage in the American media. These two seemed okay, though. Very pleasant and smart. In fact I was already familiar with the reporter, thanks to his coverage of the space program. Over the course of those few minutes, however, the true nature of both the story and why they contacted me came out. It was a response to the latest school shooting, and the latest study (one comes out after every fucking mass shooting) to claim that we need to keep a careful eye on the mopey, alienated, suicidal weird loners. If you want to catch the next shooter before he pulls the trigger, see, you’ll find him in that group. And they contacted me, well, I guess because I fit the profile.

            My first thought of course was that if they want to round up every teenager who’s mopey, alienated, and weird, they’re gonna be rounding up every damned teenager in the country. My second thought was that if I was in high school today and wrote and said half the things I did back then, I’d be in prison now. They seemed happy with my initial responses, so we set up the interview for four days later. The problem with that was that it gave me four days to ponder the issues in question.

            The night before the interview I called my folks to let them know what was happening, and what the show was all about. “Well,” my dad said, “just don’t punch anybody.” The next morning Morgan warned me against shouting anything like “I’ll kill you! I’ll kill you all!” into the camera. I didn’t think that was the problem so much as the honest thoughts that kept swirling around my head. If I answered their questions directly and bluntly, told them what I really thought, there was a good chance (given the mindset of the country at the moment) that I’d be locked away just as, y’know, a precautionary measure.

            We have from the start lived in a paranoid nation, ready and eager to overreact to anything at a moment’s notice. Pick any year at random, and the populace was being told to be on the lookout for one group or another—communists, anarchists, the Japanese, the Germans, the Italians, Satanic child abusers, terrorists, whoever. But running throughout our history there have always been two constant sources of paranoia: we’re scared to death of anyone who thinks differently, and we’re absolutely terrified of our children, particularly if they’re acting like children. If they aren’t talking as fluently as we'd like when they’re three, we get them diagnosed as autistic. If they have a lot of energy when they’re seven then they have ADHD and we pump them full of Ritalin. And my god, the teenagers! Why are they so mopey? Why do they dress like that? Why do they listen to that awful music? Why are they rebelling like that? Well, now thanks to this new study you have your answer—they’re behaving that way because they’re gonna be shooting up a school any day now, so you better get them locked up before it’s too late.

            Jesus. Anyway, that’s why I shouldn’t be given too long to ponder potential questions—I start to piss myself off. But the real problem with over-thinking interviews beforehand is that once you get down to the real thing, you never, ever get asked what you think you were going to be asked, and all those brilliantly worded and insightful replies go right out the damn window, leaving you stammering and stuttering and lost. But I do it anyway.

            When I opened the Bunker’s front door I found it was just a two man operation on my doorstep, the reporter and the cameraman, but they were hauling an unimaginable mountain of equipment. I stood off to the side and listened as they moved my table and lamps and ashtrays around to make room for their lights and cameras and sound equipment, snaking a nest of electrical cables across the floor. It took about two and a half hours to set everything up, then another half hour to run assorted tests, contact the assorted producers, arrange and rearrange and reposition things. Meanwhile, I was getting hungry, I needed a drink and man how I could’ve used a smoke. But then the cameras were rolling and it was too late for that. The reporter started asking me questions about suicide and school shootings and my mind was a complete blank. It happens every damn time, and I think they do it on purpose.

            When it was over with and they started packing up the equipment, I headed for the fridge to grab a beer, lighting a smoke along the way. My head was spinning. I wasn’t accustomed to talking that much, especially when I had no fucking clue what I was saying.

            The reporter and cameraman were both nice, bright guys, and as they packed we talked awhile more about the space program, grave-robbing, and divorce. We had a few more beers and a couple more smokes between us. Never trust a reporter who doesn’t drink, I’ll tell you that. This one did, though, so I got the feeling he wouldn’t screw me over too bad on this thing. About five hours after they arrived they headed out again, once they’d put everything they’d moved back where it belonged.

            The next morning I could recall very little of what I’d said, and most of what I could remember I regretted. I tried to take comfort in the fact that only about eight seconds of the interview would make it into the final edit of the show. But which eight seconds? The only certainties in all this were the three things I said that would never, ever make it on the air:

            1. Maybe there are so many mass shootings in schools and offices because schools and offices are horrible places by nature, and have that sort of effect on people.

            2. At the heart of our fascination with mass shootings, beneath all the chest thumping and those stupid sidewalk memorials with those stupid teddy bears is a kind of wish fulfillment—that these people had the guts to step across the line and actually do something that we can only fantasize about. We admire these people, though of course no one could ever admit that.

            3. Maybe mass shootings are nothing more than a rational response to an absurd and ugly world.

            Then again there’s always the possibility that they’ll decide to use only those three clips, in which case yes, I’m going to be arrested.

            Yeah, next time maybe I’d better hit that delete key.

 

Postscript: The morning before the show was set to air, I received a phone call informing me that my segment had been dropped. It seems they snagged an interview with a real school shooter, which pretty well trumped anything I had to say. Which, I must admit, is kind of a relief.

 

You can contact Jim Knipfel at this address:

With occasional exceptions Slackjaw generally appears weekly. For email notification of other Jim Knipfel publications (books, etc.) and events please join the Slackjaw email list here.