Ice-T, Russian Roulette & The Bandwagon Scolds

I was just reminiscing about the day in March 1992 when I bought the debut CD of Body Count (y’know, the album with “Cop Killer” on it?) at the Marine PX at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. I was there as part of the Joint Task Force charged with supervision of the scores of Haitian refugees being picked up on a daily basis by the U.S. Coast Guard. Not a fun time, particularly as an MP tasked with doing foot patrols inside the refugee camps, but that’s a whole other subject and not at all what’s on my mind this morning.

Back to Ice-T’s Body Count album and the ensuing “Cop Killer” brouhaha it inspired.

Having bought the album its first week in release, I had no idea it would become so controversial because of that one particular song. I knew who Ice-T was, had heard some of his stuff during my first few years on active duty, and had found him to be an interesting artist with some compelling stories to tell. Much like a novelist or a filmmaker, only working within a different medium.

I never viewed him as an advocate for the points of view he was communicating in his music. He was a storyteller, neither promoting, nor condoning, but describing actions and attitudes prevalent on the city streets he was familiar with.

I can’t remember exactly when the controversy over the “Cop Killer” track erupted in the media. I do recall a brief conversation with two fellow MPs in the back of a deuce-and-a-half one morning on the way to McCalla Field (site of the refugee camps). My squad leader, a Staff Sergeant, and a team leader, a Sergeant, somehow got on to the topic of whether or not the song promoted violence against cops.

My squad leader, SSG Scott, argued that, no, “Cop Killer” wasn’t advocating anyone go out and shoot cops; the song, as he understood it, was merely describing a mindset, a “street reality”, that we, as law enforcement, had best familiarize ourselves with, so as to defend against it. Banning the song, in essence, making it “disappear”, Sergeant Scott warned, wasn’t going to make the cop-haters– who possessed that mindset long before the Body Count song came along– disappear as well.

The angry Sergeant…who admitted that he hadn’t actually heard the song yet and, more importantly, didn’t need to to know it was “fucked up”…remained adamant that if Ice-T’s song “Cop Killer” led to the death of just one police officer, then Ice-T should be held personally responsible for it. And thrown in “fuckin’ jail” with the cop killer, he said.

Having heard the song, the entire album, for that matter, I threw in my two cents. I agreed with Staff Sergeant Scott. It was a story, a cautionary tale, same as a piece of creative fiction like the movie “Scarface” had been. It all came down to the individual, their own decisions and a question of individual responsibility.

Blaming an Ice-T tune on one’s own decision to gun down a police officer, or anyone, for that matter, was no more credible than blaming Francis Ford Coppola for one’s decision to fraternize with members of La Cosa Nostra. Or blaming Matt Dillon and Kelly Lynch for one’s own decision to get hooked on narcotics and rob pharmacists.

Even back then, as a relatively inexperienced, media-influenced, left-leaning doofus, I was leaning towards, albeit unknowingly, a decidedly more conservative point of view on crime and punishment.

If some angry, trigger-happy thug tried to blame his own murderous behavior on the influence of an entertainer, or a piece of music, let ’em try, I said. It didn’t work for Charles Manson. Didn’t work for John Hinckley. Trying to drag other people down for the shitty choice you, and you alone, chose to make, is pathetic and dishonest….

…as were all the kneejerk calls for censorship I was suddenly hearing over Ice-T’s song, I thought, but I didn’t say that out loud. Better to get along with people, I decided, especially when they outrank me.

The entertainment arts seldom, if ever, receive notice for any positive influence they may have had upon their audience. When anything horrifically negative can be blamed on a piece of art, however, bandwagons of finger-pointing scolds come a-calling. Why? For many different reasons, but primarily because it’s easy and sensationalistic.

The fact that, over the past 38 years, millions of people watched the movie “The Deer Hunter” yet didn’t choose to play Russian Roulette is ignored by those seeking to condemn the film and its makers by pointing to the miniscule percentage of its audience who blew their brains out with a gun, for whatever reason, after viewing that particular section of the film. (Coincidentally, the very part of the film which, its leftist critics insisted, had defamed the noble character of the North Vietnamese.)

Controversy sells.

I could see that, even back then, when at least two of the MPs I had been stationed with actually sought out the Body Count album for purchase. Neither of these guys really cared for the music Ice-T and his bandmates were playing, they told me. They forked over their cash for the CD solely because they wanted a collector’s item before its controversial track was removed or the album pulled from stores.

Neither of these Army buddies of mine went on to gun down police officers. One later became an Air Marshal, the other a police officer with Nashville Metro.

“I ain’t never killed no cop. I felt like it a lot of times. But I never did it. If you believe that I’m a cop killer, you believe David Bowie is an astronaut.” (Ice-T)

Ice-T wrote “Cop Killer” as a protest song. If the ensuing controversy achieved anything, it was a few extra record sales.

Sociopaths and psychopaths will always be with us. They watch a lot of different movies, read a lot of different books, hear a lot of different music. So do the rest of us who don’t commit heinous crimes against other individuals.

Attempting to control behavior by banning this movie, or that book, or that song, or whatever, is either hopelessly naive or stunningly disingenuous, and won’t do away with the horrible behavior it allegedly inspired…but it will give a lot of power to those who succeed in convincing the rest of us that it will.