The Critical Mass

The demons in our midst

The backstories to tonight’s Mastodon concert at Rochester’s Main Street Armory run deep.

It’s called one of the world’s top heavy-metal bands, but Mastodon is actually a genre-bending rock and prog quartet whose seven albums often reach for expansive themes, and the demons in our midst. Based in Atlanta, it features two musicians, drummer Brann Dailor and guitarist Bill Kelliher, who graduated through the ’90s Rochester indie-music scene, most notably with the quirky metal band Lethargy.

It’s hard to tell whether success comes with a price, or if it’s just life, but Kelliher damn near drank himself to death. Mastodon’s 2009 album Crack the Skye was inspired, in part, by the suicide of Dailor’s 14-year-old sister, Skye. And the band’s latest album, Emperor of Sand, strikes a new theme: A collection of songs heavily influenced by cancer that has touched the band. Kelliher’s mother died of a brain tumor, Dailor’s mother has been undergoing chemotherapy for years, and bassist Troy Sanders’ wife was diagnosed with breast cancer.

And there’s this. One of the tour’s supporting acts is Eagles of Death Metal, which evolved out of a put-down of a band that Josh Homme, a guitarist with Queens of the Stone Age, considered to be a little too tame to be called death metal. So the joke became a band, then a tragedy: Eagles of Death Metal was playing a sold-out show at the Bataclan concert hall in Paris in November of 2015 when terrorists entered the theater and began randomly shooting people. Eighty-nine were killed, including the band’s merchandise manager, in a coordinated series of attacks that including suicide bombs, claiming the lives of 130 people and injuring 368 more. Homme rarely tours with Eagles of Death Metal, and was not at Bataclan that night; but co-founder Jesse Hughes was there, with the band escaping out a back door of the club. ISIS claimed credit for the attacks.

The Bataclan tragedy was followed in May of this year by a suicide bomber, inspired by Islamist extremism, who blew himself up after an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England, killing 22 people and injuring 250. And then came last week’s massacre in Las Vegas at a Jason Aldean country-music concert, leaving 58 people dead and injuring 489. That one was carried out by an American citizen; a terrorist attack with no known motivation.

The stories of these distant tragedies are often accompanied by a collection the pictures of the victims, a yearbook page of death.

The details are often different when large crowds come under attack. In Nice, France, an ISIS sympathizer driving a truck down a sidewalk killed 77 people. In Norway, a right-wing extremist planted a bomb in Oslo, killing eight people and injuring at least 209 when it exploded. He then went to a youth camp, shooting to death 69 people and injuring 110, many of them teenagers.

Will we no longer gather as a community for concerts, or a stroll down the sidewalk on a beautiful summer evening? The commonality in all of these acts of violence against society is fear. The perpetrators – be it extremist politics or the infamous “disgruntled former employee” – want to bring daily life to a calamitous halt. And after the bodies are counted, we see fear again. Fear as a legislative tool.

The Second Amendment is a difficult piece of grammar to interpret. Here it is, in its entirety:

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

The historical context is important. The Second Amendment does not guarantee the right of all Americans to carry automatic weapons. The Founding Fathers, of course, never heard of such a thing. If the notion had struck Ben Franklin, the Battle of Bunker Hill might have had quite a different conclusion. The Second Amendment simply calls for “a well regulated Militia.” And in the 21st century, militias are as relevant as stagecoach drivers.

Yet we’re stuck with a large sector of the country that believes that the safety of his family, and the preservation of his country, is in the hands of a well-armed man.

A well-armed white man. Because consider that same person’s reaction to a well-armed black man, or a well-armed Muslim man. That changes the argument, exposing the roots of the fear.

Cancer kills far more Americans than foreign terrorists. Yet while we crank up spending on our military, there are proposals before Congress now that will remove Americans’ access to proper health care. Should we deport legislators who are behind this threat to our lives? Perhaps you have encountered the statistic that more Americans are killed by their furniture falling on them than are killed by terrorists. Yet we hear no one calling for the deporting of Ikea.

We can’t outlaw trucks, we can’t prevent some angry person from stopping at the hardware store on his way home from work and buying the materials he needs to make a bomb. Instructions can be found in right-wing publications or on the internet. Something big and dangerous will always be at hand. In the larger picture, our leaders are unwilling to tackle the admittedly difficult task of changing the culture of violence. Something that won’t be accomplished in our lifetimes, but a beginning that we owe to the future.

A comment I heard a day or two after the Las Vegas shootings is such events, while tragic, are the price we pay for the Second Amendment. That argument didn’t seem to get too far; I don’t know many people who are willing to surrender their lives for your right to own a gun. No one wants to die from a random bullet fired by a sportsman from the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Hotel.

No, the argument we’ve returned to is: “If we give up guns, only criminals will have guns.”

Think about that for a moment. If we give up guns, only criminals will have guns… If we give up guns, only criminals will have guns… If we give up guns, only criminals will have guns…

That would make them easier to spot, wouldn’t it?

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