This is an unpublished essay commissioned by a local paper, which later decided my thoughts were a bit too harsh for its advertisers and readers. Que sera, sera.
The scenes of horror awaiting responding officers on I-280 that late December night were enough to churn the stomachs of the most steeled police veterans. Littered Christmas presents, bloodied corpses, and an ejected baby carriage were among the testaments to the wrong-way, booze-fueled rampage of Michael P. Gagnon, whose drunken stupidity took the lives of five innocent people.
It is right to condemn Gagnon’s decision to crawl behind the wheel of his brother’s pickup truck after consuming excessive amounts of intoxicants on December 30. Gagnon’s selfish idiocy has forever scarred the lives of the remaining members of the Griffin and Burkman families, and the outpouring of generosity by Toledoans to the various memorial funds demonstrates the power of this tragedy to affect the average person.
Gagnon deserves to be punished to the fullest extent of the law, and one can only hope that this self-centered, reckless punk gets a cell at the Toledo Correctional Institution with a window overlooking I-280, thus spending the entirety of his period of incarceration staring at the accident scene.
Yet Gagnon is but a microcosm of a much larger problem, what I like to think of as the nexus between the Cult of Machismo, the Cult of the Automobile, and the Cult of Inebriation. While the ultimate decision to drive drunk lay with Gagnon, we need to examine the the uniquely American social ills that breed intoxicated terrors like Michael P. Gagnon.
Gagnon grew up in a world in which an important measure of one’s masculinity is the ability to consume large amounts of alcohol while maintaining some semblance of control. Those who are unable to “handle” their booze, goes the ignorant myth, are seen as weak men. Males 18-30, by the way, are the highest demographic of intoxicated drivers, and males are involved in twice as many fatal car accidents as females in which alcohol was involved.
Doubt this link between masculinity and alcohol consumption? Take a look at the Facebook and MySpace pages of young people that you know and follow the links of their friends. These websites are filled with images of intoxicated partiers, extolling the virtues of being blasted out of one’s mind. Some of these drunks-in-training actually wear DUIs as badges of honor, as some sort of rite of passage into manhood.
Tied in with this is the not-so-subtle marketing message that virility is intertwined with alcohol consumption. Most alcohol manufacturers at some point feature beautiful models in their ads in a variety of suggestive poses, be it lying seductively on a couch, bouncing around in a bikini, or clutching an icy, sweating beer can with two hands.
Gagnon also came of age in a society that worships the automobile, and one in which self-identity for many people is shaped by their vehicles. Again driven by advertisements is the idea that beautiful women will find you more attractive by your choice of vehicle, and the stubborn resistance by some drunks to relinquish their car keys is undoubtedly a reflection of their unwillingness to give up this potent symbol of their masculinity.
Remember, too, that the ecclesiastical sport of our Cult of the Automobile is NASCAR, an organization that actively promotes alcohol consumption through advertisements on its vehicles and drivers’ uniforms. Perhaps there is no greater evidence of our social hypocrisy toward drunk driving than gleaming stock cars roaring around tracks promoting beer, wine, and liquor.
Left: The Griffin family of Parkville, MD: Danny Griffin, Jr., Bethany Griffin, Jordan Griffin, Lacie Burkman, Haley Burkman, Vadie Griffin, Sidney Griffin, and Beau Burkman
The third component of this deadly combination of influences on drunken killer Gagnon’s mentalité is our collective worship at the Altar of the Bottle. Yes, we occasionally run ads with taglines about responsible drinking, and those holiday public service announcements probably have some effect on curbing drunk driving, but we live in a culture that idolizes inebriation.
James Bond shakes martinis in one scene, while hopping the next into his Aston Martin. We shake our heads at the drunken asininity of celebrities like Paris Hilton, Mel Gibson, and David Hasselhoff, yet in doing so we send a subtle message that inebriation is somehow normal and expected.
Movies like American Pie, Animal House, and Superbad extol the virtues of underage intoxication with little in the way of consequences. Heck, in Superbad, the inebriated protagonist McLovin not only gets the girl, but also wins the respect of the bumbling police officers, who allow the drunken teen to fire off rounds from a police revolver.
And we hold up as the patron saint of the Cult of Inebriation the writer Hunter S. Thompson, a pill-popping, booze-swilling, gun-waving lunatic who blew his brains out with a shotgun. Thompson’s life was even the subject of a reverential bio-pic created to immortalize his inebriated insanity, based upon his novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, in which Johnny Depp 118 minutes staggering through the effects of epic amounts of rum, tequila, LSD, amyl nitrate, ether, and a host of other intoxicants, all the while tooling around the desert in a convertible.
Good times, right?
There are certainly steps we could take to reduce further the likelihood of motorized carnage like that wrought by Michael P. Gagnon. The curbing of alcohol advertising – especially such dubious linkages as NASCAR and alcohol – might have some effect, as would the strengthening of drunk driving laws. I suggest a two-tiered approach, with BAC levels over .015 being treated as felonies with mandatory jail time, as a first step in demonstrating that Americans are serious about eliminating the menace of drunk drivers.
But until our values change, we will continue to wake up to news stories detailing the death and destruction created by intoxicated killers like Michael P. Gagnon. So long as we collectively chuckle at a heroin-shooting, red Chevrolet-driving Vincent Vega in Pulp Fiction, or find humor in the pathetic drunks featured in almost every episode of Cops, we will continue to find that innocent people like Bethany Griffin, Danny Griffin, Jordan Griffin, Sidney Griffin, Beau Berkman, Lacie Burkman, Haley Burkman, and Vadi Griffin will suffer horrible fates at the hands of intoxicated drivers.
It is time that we recognize excessive alcohol consumption as a social disease, and not merely as adolescent hijinks worthy of a wink, a nudge, and a laugh. We need to view stumbling drunks as sick, dysfunctional threats to our well-being, and not as objects of entertainment and – worse – role models.
Party’s over, folks.