Commentary: Murderous tales of the dog star | St. Louis Public Radio

Commentary: Murderous tales of the dog star

Aug 29, 2013

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: The Dog Days of Summer draw to a close. The Romans so named this time of year because of the celestial ascendancy of Sirius, the brightest star of the constellation Canis Major — the “Large Dog” in the night sky.

Ancient soothsayers dreaded the season. According to Brady’s Clavis Calendaria, they saw it as an evil period when “the Sea boiled, the Wine turned sour, Dogs grew mad, and all other creatures became languid; causing to Man, among other diseases, burning fevers, hysterics, and phrensies.” The reign of the Dog Star brought languid frenzy beneath a torpid sun…

Though the local climate was surprisingly temperate through most of the Dog Days this year, the unpleasantness of languid frenzy made its usual appearance.

In Duncan, Okla., a jogger was shot in the back from people in a moving car. The victim, Christopher Lane, was a student from Australia. He was, by all accounts, a fine young man who’d decided to attend college in the United States because of his love of baseball. Regrettably, he was apparently unaware that our alternate national pastime is shooting each other. The official explanation for the crime is that three youths were bored and so decided to kill somebody to relieve their tedium.

In Spokane, Wash., two other teenagers have been charged with beating an 88-year-old man to death in the parking lot of a VFW hall. Their victim, Delbert “Shorty” Belton, was an Army veteran who’d been wounded in the battle for Okinawa. The apparent motive was robbery, though the deceased was a man of modest means and thus not a particularly enticing target.

The unusual cruelty of these murders made each a national story. Because four of the five charged assailants were black and both victims were white, some have questioned whether these incidents should not be properly classified as hate crimes.

Interestingly, in Australia, where the senseless slaughter of one of their own has engendered understandable popular outrage, the race angle wasn’t mentioned. There, the blame was cast on America’s gun culture and the resultant availability of lethal weaponry.

The Aussies have a point. After all, a member of the killing crew in Oklahoma was white — making the claim of racial animus at least questionable. Then again, one of the black suspects had posted on Facebook, “90% of white people are nasty. #hatethem.” Had a white kid broadcast such racist nonsense before shooting an innocent black man, I suspect lawyers from the Justice Department would be falling over each other in the rush to file charges.

Aside from their race, the salient commonality the victims shared was their utter defenselessness. And though a gun would have done nothing to protect the jogger, the case can be fairly made that a firearm could have made a big difference for the elderly combat veteran. Armed people are rarely beaten to death.

While contemplating racial hostility, the gun epidemic, mortal tedium and other manifestations of routine madness, news arrived from Atlanta that yet another gunman had taken yet another grade school hostage. As a nation, we clearly lead the civilized world in school shootings. We talk a lot about the problem but never do much to solve it.

This time, a 19-year-old suspect with a mental disorder went off his meds and took an AK-47 and the traditional 500 rounds of ammunition to a neighborhood schoolhouse. After firing six shots but injuring no one, he confronted Antoinette Tuff, a female bookkeeper who’d been working in the office.

The ensuing 911 tape in which Tuff and the police dispatcher negotiate the madman’s surrender is truly remarkable dialog. Both women were heroic—Tuff the more so because she was working in the line of fire. The gunman, by the way was white; Tuff is African American.

I later saw her interviewed on CNN by Anderson Cooper.  He abandoned all pretense of objectivity and literally gushed about the courage and compassion she displayed while bringing the crisis to a bloodless conclusion.

Who could blame Cooper for his journalistic lapse? The woman was so profoundly kind and decent that the only reasonable human response to her story was to give her a hug. He resisted that impulse — at least while on-camera — but I’m not sure I could have. She was, she explained, a woman of faith who called on her God when the going got tough.

It is tempting to refer to the murderers mentioned earlier as “monsters.” Doing so, however, lets the rest of us too easily off the hook. “They” commit atrocious crimes; “we” are appalled. Thankfully, we’re different…

The Romans recognized the dark potential of the human psyche and its destructive inclinations. But just as real is the bright light that Tuff shone in her darkest hour. These are the polar extremes of the soul.

When the police arrived to take custody of the malicious intruder that the bookkeeper had literally disarmed with kindness, she can be heard counseling him to remain calm. “It’s gonna be all right, Sweetie,” she predicted.

As the Dog Star descends, we are left to reflect on racism and mayhem but also to contemplate the memory of a black heroine calling a white psycho “Sweetie” while assuring him that somehow everything would turn out all right.  Here’s hoping she was speaking about all of us…