Ballad of a Switchblade Knife

Last Christmas we received the cherished gift of a switchblade knife. If a switchblade knife seems inappropriate to the spirit of the holiday you should know that it’s a family heirloom, handed down to us by our beloved pop along with an apocryphal story about how he wrested it from some trouble-making punk in an Oklahoma honky-tonk, and that it’s a strangely beautiful object even without the lore. A bone-handled and double-edged 50’s-era Ethan from Italy, where they know a thing or two about cutting people, it’s the same sort of knife that inspired Link Wray and his Ray Men’s “Switchblade” and was used in the murder in “Twelve Angry Men” and the fight scene in “Rebel Without a Cause” and the “cool, man, cool” dance numbers in “West Side Story.”
We also notice that our Christmas gift is probably not much different from the knife that seems to have started the chain of events that has resulted in the riots currently raging in Baltimore.
The rioting is ostensibly an expression of anger about the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man who died of spinal injuries after being arrested by Baltimore police, which followed Gray fleeing from and being chased down and tackled by officers, and although it’s still frustratingly unclear from the news why the police approached Gray or why he chose to flee, or what happened while Gray was in custody, the official reports indicate that a switchblade knife was found on the suspect and no other reasons have yet been offered or any other charges alleged for his fatal encounter with law enforcement. All sorts of knives are strictly regulated in Maryland, a state that also prides itself on strict regulation of gun ownership, so it is at least plausible that all the burned-out businesses and cancelled ball games and violent assaults and other ugliness that have lately been visited upon Baltimore all began with a switchblade knife.
Such a breakdown of the civilized order of society raises all sorts of important questions, of course, and the conservative viewpoint will immediately wonder about the Democratic Party’s monopolistic control of both Maryland and Baltimore, the apparent gleefulness of the supposedly angry protestors as they avail themselves of the free stuff that rioting provides, the post-patriarchal subcultures that foster such seething anger and destructiveness, and the nihilistic disregard for consequences of the rioters’ apologists. Still, from the same conservative viewpoint one should see that at least some small part of the problem is too many laws, a complaint that conservatives regularly voice on other occasions that don’t involve possibly shady young black men dying while in police custody. Conservatives will quite rightly decry the draconian gun laws that impede the rights of Marylanders of all colors to defend themselves in the case of a breakdown of the civilized order, and we hope some questions about that will be put to former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley at some point in his expected presidential campaign, but that also obliges a conservative to wonder why even a possibly shady 25-year-old black man can’t carry a switchblade knife on the dangerous and Democrat-controlled streets of Baltimore.
Before there was Freddie Green there was Eric Garner, a black man who died after a headlock under a pile of New York City Police officers while being arrested for the crime of selling single untaxed cigarettes to passersby. There wasn’t as much as rioting as there has been in Baltimore, although two NYPD officers were gunned down in retaliation, the usual conservative critiques and liberal apologies were bandied about as required, and the absurd taxes that both New York state and city impose on tobacco to create such a petty black market remain in place. A grand jury declined to press charges against any of the officers involved, which struck even such white middle-aged middle-Americans as us as slightly odd, but we can’t claim to have heard all the evidence that was offered and are sympathetic to the argument that even the laws against government-created crimes need to enforced, but we can’t shake a conservative suspicion that too many well-intended laws might have had something do with it. One of the leading academic apologists for the criminal underclass argues that many young black men are precluded from gainful employment and law-abiding lives by the proliferating rules they are required to obey, and although the estimable Heather McDonald does her usual fine job of demolishing the thesis over at City Journal, and as much as we hate to credit a leading academic for anything, we think there might be something to it.
We’re white and middle aged and boringly dressed here in the middle of America, not at all the sorts that the cops are likely to profile, but we’re certain that if some rogue prosecutor in Wisconsin wants to punish us for our admittedly unfashionable political opinions he’ll probably find some obscure legal cause to do so. He won’t be able to get us for that family heirloom switchblade knife, as our state has repealed its ’50s-era ban on the things, which was widely decried by all the high-minded liberals around here, who are the same people who like to think themselves too smart to be swept up in the sorts of conservative hysterias about juvenile delinquency that popped up back in the ’50s, and it looks as if we won’t be patronizing the black markets for beer and cigarettes, as the religiously conservative but staunchly anti-government legislature here has apparently declined to back the governor’s “sin tax” proposals, but somewhere in the thousands of pages of regulations that are enacted each year the authorities could surely find something. If there’s a black market out there for those Thomas Edison light bulbs that we loved so much we’ll probably wind up purchasing a few, and we can’t promise that a sales tax will be properly paid, and we’d like to think that if we were a nun we’d be refusing to pay for the required contraceptive coverage on our government-approved health care plan, and these days there’s no telling what federal rule we might run afoul of next.
Our beloved pop was raised a country boy, and even after three college degrees and many years as a top executive in a Fortune 500 company and travel around the world he remains one to this day, and he long ago inculcated in us the habit of carrying around a Swiss Army knife, even if we never were so careful as he was about keeping the blades well-honed on a spit-speckled whet stone, and it served us well over the years when we needed tweezers to extract a thorn or tiny scissors for some tiny string or a corkscrew for a bottle of wine or an attached tiny screwdriver for repairing our spectacles, but even those small satisfactions have been surrendered to the modern age. Even such an innocuous tweezing and bottle-opening and string-cutting and spectacle-repairing instrument always got us dirty looks from the security guards at the government buildings we are too often required to to enter, there was a frightening freak-out about it one time when the local newspaper assigned us to cover an appearance by the Vice President of the United States here in town, and even white and middle-aged and boringly dressed sorts such as ourselves would just as soon tell any police officer who pulls us over for a failed tail light that we have no knives or other weapons, so we have long since lost this practical link to our prairie heritage. That leading academic apologist for the criminal underclass probably won’t find this so heart-wrenching as her tales of the crack-dealing victims of her new book, and it probably won’t force the Maryland legislature and the Baltimore City Council and the rest of the Democratic Party to reconsider their penchant for devising ever new rules and regulations that might bring a possibly shady young black man or seemingly respectable old white man into a potentially unpleasant contact with the police, even if such a reliably liberal publication as The Village Voice is finding more sympathetic black men harmed much worse for knives put to more useful purposes than ours, but we hope that our fellow conservatives will be more intellectually consistent in their opposition than The Village Voice and rest of liberalism to the over-regulation of an ever-expanding state.
At this point we haven’t the slightest idea what happened to Freddie Gray, or to what extent he was responsible for his demise, and we make no apologies for the rioters who claim to be looting on his behalf, and neither do we blame any boringly dressed white middle-aged conservatives in the middle of America or any other Republicans for what happens in such blood-red states as Maryland, but we’d hate to think that all the harm that has resulted from the riots started with a switchblade knife.

— Bud Norman


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