Tales From the Metalnomicon: Damon Root’s Heavy Metal Justice

Today the Metalnomicon welcomes Reason senior editor Damon Root, one of the most thought-provoking, singular voices writing on the intricacies of American law today. He’s also a metal/hardcore devotee and the original articulator of the Suicidal Tendencies litmus test for federal candidates, which, as we all know, has had a profound effect on our nation in several alternate dimensions.
So, anyway, yeah, Root’s new book
Overruled: The Long War for Control of the U.S. Supreme Court is a straight up tour de force of eye-opening, epiphany-inducing history parsing. It’s great and everyone interested in the inner workings of the Supreme Court and its profound effect on our lives should read it. But we suspected some metal/hardcore science got excised by the squares at Palgrave Macmillan and, thus, hit Root up for a list of five classic hardcore and metal songs about justice.

The man did not disappoint…

Etched in stone above the entrance to the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., are the words “Equal Justice Under Law.” But what actually counts as justice — and why? In Overruled: The Long War for Control of the U.S. Supreme Court I chronicle a century’s worth of legal battles over such questions. But that’s hardly the end of the story. To grapple further with these weighty matters of law and liberty, I turn to the timeless wisdom of heavy metal and hardcore punk. Here, in alphabetical order by artist, are five classic songs that each, in their own way, address the meaning of justice.

1. “The Tombs” by Agnostic Front

Plenty of musicians have written songs about America’s criminal justice system, but only a select few have based their lyrics on firsthand experience. Roger Miret, lead singer for New York hardcore kingpins Agnostic Front, is among the select. After doing time in prison on drug charges, Miret penned “The Tombs,” his own searing indictment of how justice is really served in this country.

“They say man is innocent till proven guilty,” Miret notes. “For sure they meant the opposite in reality.”


2. “Born to Land Hard” by Cold As Life

What is the root cause of criminal behavior? That question has been debated endlessly by judges, lawyers, politicians, and scholars. Cold As Life, the notorious Detroit hardcore crew whose members also know a thing or two about the justice system, wastes no time in pointing the finger of blame straight back at society.

“A lot of us are born to land hard, to end up in a prison yard,” announces vocalist Jeff Gunnells. Why? “You did it to us, you’re to blame.”

3. “Legalize Drugs” by Fear

Writing in 1972, future Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman argued that “street crime would drop dramatically” if the U.S. government legalized drugs. Not only did drug prohibition create a lucrative black market run by violent gangsters, Friedman observed, it led to the incarceration of millions of nonviolent offenders whose only crime involved getting high.

Wait, did I say Milton Friedman? I meant to say Lee Ving, the beef bologna-loving frontman for the infamous punk band Fear.

“We’ve got the largest prison population in the world,” sings Ving, and there’s only one way to correct that injustice: “When you take away the profit, then you destroy the black market… Legalize drugs!”

4. “Electric Eye” by Judas Priest

In 2013 federal Judge Richard Leon denounced the National Security Agency for deploying an “almost-Orwellian” spying apparatus that ensnared the private communications of “every telephone user in the United States.” But as usual, when it comes to the topic of lawbreaking, Judas Priest said it better. Indeed, way back in 1982, Priest gave voice to the totalitarian nightmares unleashed by an unblinking government stakeout of the entire citizenry.

“Up here in space/I’m looking down on you,” warns the “Electric Eye” in the sky. “My lasers trace everything you do.”

Question: Can justice ever truly exist within the confines of a total surveillance state?

Answer: “There is no true escape, I’m watching all the time.”

5. “Give It Revolution” by Suicidal Tendencies

For more than thirty years, Suicidal Tendencies’ leader Mike Muir has united punks, skaters, and headbangers with his righteous rants against parents, cops, and other unjust authority figures. On “Give It Revolution,” Muir takes that message of liberation to its logical conclusion, issuing a call to arms against government tyranny.

“The greatest weapon of the fascist is the tolerance of the pacifist,” Muir declares. “We’ve got to stand up and fight it.”

Case closed.