By BRENDAN COONEY
As scary as it is to watch someone electrocuted for speaking his mind, the most horrifying parts of the Andrew Meyer incident at the University of Florida are the things happening on the periphery. (The video can be seen here: http://youtube.com/watch?v=HgrFSHZfD1o)
There is the face of the woman on the right of the aisle, staring obediently ahead to Sen. John Kerry as Meyer is pinned to the ground just behind her. Or the man on the left smiling as the action comes right past him like actors tearing down the fourth wall.
The only person with the power to stop the assault was the man with the microphone, and his affect never rose above flat. Shortly before the cops pressed the volts into Meyer's chest, Kerry can be heard droning, "Folks, I think if we all just calm down." The folks he is addressing, of course, are not the police but the few audience members who have risen from their seats.
It's as if one is watching the end of "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," with Meyer coming out as the last human who has not been struck by the pods that replace people with emotionless doubles.
Perhaps half the comments of Youtube viewers support the Tasing as an apt treatment for someone so disruptive. Meyer may have been loud, attention-hungry and an awkward presence in the room, but the awkwardness is nothing compared with that of people trying to work out the concept of free speech in their online comments.
"The First Amendment does not guarantee anyone the right to make a public ass of oneself at the expense of others..." writes Russ Thayer. Joseph (comment 87 on the New York Times site) agrees: "I hate to tell you, but the meaning of Freedom of Speech doesn't mean you can scream and shout at people. To exercise your right to Freedom of Speech you need to remain calm." Says Dusty Bottoms, also on the Times site: "Freaking idiot deserved it.... [H]ow many times does one have to be warned? I'm all for free speech, but do it in an intelligent way."
The proportion of voices sympathetic to Meyer was altogether different among readers of the Times of London. Thirty-three thought the Tasing was wrong, and only three supported it. Should it be any surprise that readers of the foreign press are less authoritarian than readers of our mainstream media?
Duncan Roy, a United Kingdom resident, posts this comment on the New York Times site: "If shouting and agitation were the criteria for tasing then our entire british parliament would be tazed! What is it with you Americans that you have become so frightened of free and passionate speech?"
Police tasing students and others without cause is nothing new. A video of an even scarier incident at UCLA last fall can be watched on youtube at: http://youtube.com/watch?v=AyvrqcxNIFs
Police Tased this student because he didn't have his student ID in the library. The cell-phone video shows an eerily passive group of zombies, inching slowly forward as the victim cries for help. Only after the student is hauled out of the library, still being tased, do a couple students start asking for badge numbers, to which the reply is: "Back up or you'll get Tased too."
The alien pods haven't gotten us all, however. Based on the volume of comments people posted on the Meyer incident, watching the video clearly hit many Americans a lot harder than it did mainstream journalists.
Mike Bellman of Columbia, Missouri, wrote, "I am ten times ashamed for the spectators who watched this debacle slack-jawed and motionless like they were watching the you-tube video online. Shame on citizens who idly watch this kind of abuse and not recognize it. Shame on all of them including John Kerry who didn't relieve the police of their duties. And finally shame on anyone who doesn't have the courage to question authority or believe that another American has the right to speak freely in an open forum. I am ashamed to live in this America and I weep for the US Constitution."
And an "ECartman" wrote that a "lot worse happened in Berkeley in late 60's and early 70's.... Wish these students could get more incensed with what we are doing in Iraq everyday.... Don't expect this to happen though as these kids really got no soul."
There's a whole racially charged aspect to the question of police authority that I can't begin to unpack here, but "Jargon" says on the Times site: "I am so sick of this blind, unquestionable trust that whites hold for police."
On the spectrum of eeriness, watching Jimmy Kimmel laugh about the incident on late-night TV was strange, but not as bad as reading dismissive accounts of it in the mainstream press.
Shameful ad hominem reporting appeared in The New York Times, Washington Post, and Salon.com. It's as if these reporters can't keep these two concepts separate: "he was annoying" and "he deserved to be arrested and assaulted." This confusion reminds me of people I sometimes meet overseas who can't treat me as an individual because I come from the loathsome United States. The fact that Meyer's website features pranks and skits, notably that he carried a "Harry Dies" sign after the release of the last Harry Potter book, seems to have persuaded many people that he deserved what he got.
Someone who exudes such a reclining air that he will probably never be on the receiving end of a Taser is The Washington Post's Emil Steiner, who writes, "Kerry's voice, however, was no match for Meyer's, who despite not having a mic continued to hog the audience's attention with such glib catch phrases as: Help me! Help!'..."
This smug tone is jolted awake by the first comment below the piece, by a "Mark" from Rhode Island: "One word: FASCISM! Be afraid to ask vital questions in our free republic."
Steiner refers to the "mysterious" yellow book Meyer recommended for Kerry. The book was Armed Madhouse by Greg Palast. Meyer identified the author as a top investigative journalist; the senator said he'd already read it. What's the mystery, aside from the stunning disconnect between body-snatched reporters and the citizenry they putatively inform?
In observing the cultural milieu in which this incident took place, from the blank reaction of students and Kerry to online comments to press reports, there was an atavistic smack of the taste of what it was to be living in the United States in 2002 and 2003. It was the most haunting time I have known, when story after story in the mainstream press sold the war, and when friends of mine with college and law and medical and doctoral degrees jumped on the bandwagon, and I looked all around me and saw only pods.
The question is when does it happen; when do the pods take over our souls in this land? Is it in adolescence, when we have individuality pounded out of us by the mob so eager to squelch any deviant thought or behavior? Is it in classrooms or in front of televisions? What is the pod?
Surely Kerry was alive in Vietnam, when he saved his fellow soldiers, and when he came home to protest the war; but somewhere in 37 years of public life he got the lobotomy needed to win elections here. (Politicians with a pulse, such as Ralph Nader and Jessie Jackson, don't stand a chance.) Even after he had time to reflect, Kerry offered the Associated Press this safe pablum: "Whatever happened, the police had a reason, had made their decision that there was something they needed to do. Then it's a law enforcement issue, not mine."
Lost in the melee was one of Meyer's questions: "Why not impeach Bush before he has a chance to invade Iran?" It's a question that, if seriously considered, would Tase the brains of zombies everywhere.
Brendan Cooney is an anthropologist living in New York City. He can be reached at: email@example.com