All the playing’s stopped in the playground now
She wants to play with her toys a while.
And school’s out early and soon we’ll be learning
And the lesson today is how to die.
And then the bullhorn crackles,
And the captain crackles,
With the problems and the hows and whys.
And he can see no reasons
‘Cause there are no reasons
What reason do you need to die?
The final verse of I Don’t Like Mondays
It was such a senseless act. It was the perfect senseless act and this was the perfect senseless reason for doing it. So perhaps I wrote the perfect senseless song to illustrate it. It wasn’t an attempt to exploit tragedy. Bob Geldof talking about the song
I’ve used I Don’t Like Mondays by the Boomtown Rats countless times in class. This type of song, with its horrifying backstory, always serves as an excellent springboard for further discussion. Curiously, though many of my students have heard it before, very rarely do they know what it is about. The most common interpretation is that it describes the frustration of going back to work after a long weekend. But even if you think you know the story well, there may well be a lot of details that you just weren’t aware of. So, here is my take on the Boomtown Rats’ magnum opus:
On January 29, 1979 in San Diego, 16-year-old Brenda Ann Spencer positioned herself by a window in her living room and began randomly shooting at the children who were waiting outside Grover Cleveland Elementary School across the street. Her weapon, a Ruger 10/22 semi-automatic .22 calibre rifle with a telescopic sight and 500 rounds of ammunition, had been a Christmas present from her father. Spencer claimed she had really wanted a radio, and she suspected that her father wanted her to kill herself. If that is so, it would seem a rather strange choice of weapon.
The shooting would claim the lives of Principal Burton Wragg and Mike Suchar, the Head Custodian. Eight students and a police officer were also injured. Wragg died trying to help the children, and Suchar was killed while trying to pull Wragg to safety. The fact that no children died was not due to a lack of intent on Spencer’s part, but to sheer luck. After firing thirty rounds, Spencer barricaded herself inside her home, where she would stay for almost seven hours before finally surrendering. During the siege she spoke to a reporter by telephone. When asked why she did it, she is alleged to have replied:
“I don’t like Mondays; this livens up the day.” She later declared that she did not recall making the remark.
Be that as it may, her alleged comment went around the world, and was the inspiration behind The Boomtown Rats 1979 song. I Don’t Like Mondays was a #1 hit in 32 different countries. However, it flopped in America, where Spencer’s parents unsuccessfully tried to have it banned. Whether the failure of the song, which only reached #73 in the US Billboard Hot 100, was due to the band being largely unknown in the U.S. or its controversial subject matter, is difficult to tell.
The Boomtown Rats’ lead singer Bob Geldof went on to organize Band Aid, Live Aid and Live 8. This charity work led to his being awarded a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire from Queen Elizabeth II, in 1986. The KBE is the equivalent of knighthood given to people born outside of the Commonwealth realm. Although some media outlets continue to refer to him erroneously as “Sir Bob Geldof”, he should not be referred to using the title “Sir”.
Geldof’s efforts have not received universal acclaim. One critic is the English comedian, actor, radio and television presenter, singer, columnist, and author. Russell Brand, who made this joke while presenting the NME Awards in 2006:
“Really, it’s no surprise he’s (Geldof) such an expert on famine, he has after all been dining out on ‘I Don’t Like Mondays’ for thirty years”. This put-down by Katy Perry’s ex may have been provoked by Geldof comparing him to a certain part of the female anatomy.
Anyway, back to the song. It’s been more than 35 years since the San Diego shootings, but gun politics remain among the most controversial issues the U.S.A. The clash between the individual right to bear arms and the responsibility of government to prevent gun crime has not been resolved. And the massacres keep coming. 15 of the 25 worst mass shootings in the last 50 years have taken place in the United States. Finland, which lies in second place, has two incidents. Of the 11 deadliest shootings in the US, five have happened since 2007 onward. And this doesn’t include the horrific events at Sandy Hook.
It was historian Richard Hofstadter who popularised the phrase gun culture to describe America’s love affair with the gun. American attitudes to guns are something else. Who can forget the scene in Bowling for Columbine in which Michael Moore is offered a free Weatherby Mark V Magnum rifle for opening a bank account? 1% of public schools have daily metal detector checks and 5% of public schools have random metal detector checks. We associate gun culture with right-wing Republicans, but support for guns is more widespread. The Pink Pistols are an example of this. The gay and lesbian gun rights organization’s motto is “Pick on someone your own calibre.” This is the spiel from their website:
The Pink Pistols get together at least once a month at local firing ranges to practice shooting, and to acquaint people new to firearms with them. We will help you select a firearm, acquire a permit, and receive proper training in its safe and legal use for self-defense. The more people know that members of our community may be armed, the less likely they will be to single us out for attack.
Guns have also entered the popular lexicon. My favourite expression has to be going postal. This term, which was first coined in the early 80s, refers to the violent rage some people experience at their workplaces. The expression gained popular currency after a series of incidents from 1983 onwards in which United States Postal Service workers shot and killed managers, co-workers, police officers and members of the public in deadly acts of rage. In fact, the homicide rate per 100,000 workers at postal facilities is actually lower than at many other workplaces, but why let the truth get in the way of a good story?
The right to own a gun and defend oneself then is considered by many citizens, especially those in the West and South, as a central feature of American identity. This attitude has deep historical roots. In the nation’s frontier history guns played a vital role as the country expanded westward, enabling settlers to protect themselves from Native Americans, outlaws, animals and anything else that moved. Frontier citizens would often take on responsibility for self-protection. In the war of independence the idea that guns were necessary against foreign tyranny took hold
At the heart of the debate we have the Second Amendment. I have to say that it does sound pretty unambiguous to me:
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.
In District of Columbia v. Heller, a landmark 2008 case, the Supreme Court of the United States held that the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution protects an individual’s right to possess a firearm for traditionally lawful purposes, such as self-defence within the home and within federal enclaves.
Accustomed to living in Europe all my life some of the arguments made by those who oppose gun control seem scandalous. Nevertheless, it is important to hear them. Whereas in Europe we believe that it is the exclusive role of the state to protect its citizens, in the United States the right to self-defence is considered fundamental. But the most shocking argument for me is the one about protecting themselves from their own government. This is not a universally accepted idea, but it does have many adherents. The idea is that if its own citizens are armed, then the government will think long and hard before trying to coerce the population – the government should feel afraid of its citizens.
I have to say that I am very sceptical about the success of gun control measures. Since 1990, Gallup has been polling Americans on gun control laws. In 1990 78% favoured introducing stricter controls. By 2010 this figure had fallen to just 44%. Guns are out there now and it will be difficult to go back. According to the Congressional Research Service, in 2009 there were an estimated 310 million firearms in the United States (not including weapons on military bases), of which 114 million were handguns, 110 million were rifles, and 86 million were shotguns. There may be ways of restricting some kind of firearms, or who has access to guns, but the NRA is very powerful and I would be amazed if any meaningful measures were brought in.
What happened to Spencer? She was tried as an adult, and pleaded guilty to two charges of murder and assault with a deadly weapon. She was given an indeterminate sentence of 25 years to life imprisonment. In 1993 Spencer became eligible for hearings to consider her suitability for parole. Since then four Board of Parole hearings have all produced the same outcome: Spencer is not fit to return to the community.
These hearings have seen her make a number of unsubstantiated claims. At the 1993 hearing Spencer said she had been a user of alcohol and drugs at the time of the crime, and that the tests showing she did not have drugs in her system when taken into custody must have been falsified. Eight years later she claimed that her had beat and sexually abused her. The parole board chairman said that, as she had not previously told any prison staff about the allegations, he doubted whether they were true. At her last hearing in 2009 parole board ruled Spencer would be denied parole, and that her case would not be considered again until 2019. She will be spending a lot of Mondays in prison before she is ever released.