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Screen Shame

A former Homeland Security worker pens a thriller about killing your TV . . . before it kills you


Published January 14, 2009 at 6:18 a.m.

  • Andy Duback

At this point in the 21st century, it is impossible to imagine life without television. The controversial box has weathered all arguments against it, from research showing that rapidly changing colors in cartoons cause seizures in children to the cultural perception that TV dulls the imagination. Now our federal government has already blown through $1.34 billion to make sure no screen goes dark on February 17, when broadcast format switches from analog to digital. The boob tube is clearly here to stay.

But South Burlington retiree and newly minted author Joe Randazzo, 65, can easily envision life without television, having lived 11 years before his family acquired its first set. “I really think ours was the last generation who was primarily formed without a television,” Randazzo declares passionately, seated in the screen-free living room of the modest ranch home off Dorset Street he shares with his wife Rita. (They keep a cable-less set in the bedroom for watching DVDs, and he owns a laptop computer.)

Unlike many younger Vermonters, Randazzo recalls pre-TV family nights around the piano. That perspective — and his work with the Department of Homeland Security — helped inspire his novel Screen, which he recently self-published using’s print-on-demand service CreateSpace.

While it may not have found a conventional publisher, Screen certainly boasts a novel premise. Set in the present and partially in Vermont, the story opens with a group of medical researchers discovering that watching TV causes cancer. Using an advanced MRI machine, they’ve found that moving pictures trigger mutated brain cells that migrate to the rest of the body. The lead doctor happens to be the twin sister of Vermont Senator Mario McGuire, a sort of composite character with Bernie Sanders’ feistiness and Patrick Leahy’s passion for justice. Mario and his staff act quickly, introducing the Cancer Prevention Act to ban television and warning all Americans to turn off their TVs — or at least play them with a blanket over the screen. (Even the senator’s wife, Julie, sometimes forgets.)

But those in the business of television have too much to lose to care about public health. International flights are blown up; cars’ brakes are removed; photos are doctored to discredit Mario and his team. The crusaders from Vermont are up against what amounts to a homegrown terrorist threat, driven by vested financial interests that seem to be backed by shadowy contacts in the federal Government Office of Domestic Security.

Randazzo is having fun with that last conspiracy twist — the acronym for his made-up department is GODS — but he did get a real glimpse of the nation’s security system in his last job before he took early retirement. From 2002 to 2004, Randazzo worked for the Department of Homeland Security as a case-resolution specialist in the Law Enforcement Support Center in Williston. The only center of its kind in the country, LESC is administered by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and serves as a sort of clearinghouse for information about alien criminals. Randazzo’s job was to provide background on illegal aliens who were aggravated felons.

“You have no idea how many there are out there — murder one, human trafficking, drugs. They’re literally . . .” — he spreads his hands in awe — “out there.” (According to the ICE website, the DHS maintains files on 100 million aliens.) Some cases, Randazzo says, were so “super-secret, with threads going back to foreign countries,” that “even with my secret clearance, I wouldn’t be told” why the individuals were being investigated.

In Screen, ICE makes an appearance when its agents capture some Saudis on a ship. But Randazzo, a fan of thriller writers Tom Clancy and Robert Parker, admits that most of the novel comes from his imagination: His stint in national security didn’t involve working “out in the field.” However, he hints, “the real truth is somewhere close to that.”

Randazzo says the DHS investigated him when he first applied by talking to his neighbors. The 95-year-old man next door called him afterward and assured him, “I didn’t tell that snoop that you were a hot-blooded Italian.” “I got such a kick out of that,” Randazzo says with a laugh.

The Homeland Security job may seem like an odd choice for someone whom Burlington Free Press readers have come to know, through his regular op-eds over the past eight years, as vehemently anti-G.W. Bush. But Randazzo is a bit of an autodidact with a restless curiosity. Born in New York City — he has a residual Brooklyn accent — he moved to Vermont in 1977 after “falling in love with the place” during a vacation with his wife Rita. (The two have been married for 40 years, and she sits at a table in the next room throughout the interview, providing answers when Joe calls out the occasional question.)

Randazzo got a job at Lane Press, a magazine printing company in South Burlington, and eventually became second-shift plant manager. In his free time, he wrote occasional pieces for magazines that reflected his interests — Canoe Magazine, National Wildlife, QST for amateur radio enthusiasts. He started his own ham radio station, which he still operates from his living room. He also formed a world-folk-blues band that used to play at a café in Winooski. From guitar, Randazzo moved on to “cello and sax and whatever else I can get my hands on.”

In one of Screen’s more flagrantly Hollywood-ish touches, the senator and his staff’s ad hoc band records an album that unexpectedly goes platinum, greatly aiding their cause. Randazzo’s own group never made a recording, but they did perform “some of my own stuff,” he admits modestly.

After 16 years at Lane Press, Randazzo partnered with Rita to start Wordsmiths Communications, a business offering grant-writing services, PR work and, in Rita’s case, copy for the Gardener’s Supply catalogue. Meanwhile, Randazzo delved into the fine arts. The backyard is decorated with his metal sculptures, including an abstract biblical ark, part of his exploration of religions. (“I sort of built my own theology, which has a lot of Buddhism,” he explains.) He taught himself to use the “complete welding setup” stored in his shed.

Inside the house, walls are hung with his mixed-media art, including pieces on which he collaborated with Rita. Their aesthetic looks like a cross between something at MoMA and a DIY craft project. “That’s a .25-caliber automatic that jammed, and I didn’t like it so I cut it in half,” Randazzo says, pointing to two framed halves of the bisected firearm hanging near the front door.

A joint Randazzo art show is not an unusual event, and Joe enlists Rita to recall their numerous exhibition sites: Castleton College, Fletcher Free Library, The Daily Planet, Helen Day Art Center. He adds that these pieces will illustrate one of the other three books he’s already authored since retiring.

In other words, Randazzo isn’t exactly your typical government worker. But when the Williston DHS center opened in 2000, he was happy to answer the feds’ ad.

Eventually, Randazzo came to find mining alien criminal records distasteful. As he puts it, “It was interesting work but kind of gritty. After a day of that . . . Gee, you know, it was kind of nasty, really. I did it just enough to know what it was like.”

His experience did inspire a genuine respect for many of the DHS’ efforts. “They’re up against it,” Randazzo says. “They’re very understaffed, there’s a heavy workload, and the threats are real. I mean, what we’re doing in Iraq is bullshit; it’s contrived,” he clarifies. “But the real threats are there.”

He has less respect for a certain program that’s part of the DHS’ Transportation Security Administration. “They actually have people who do profiling [in airports],” Randazzo says. “These idiots go to school for three months, they come out, and they’re taught to recognize people who are supposedly a potential threat.” He is incredulous about “these goons” and the threat of an “Orwellian” government they represent.

Screen is a heartfelt compilation of these views on politics, religion, media and morality, most of them only thinly disguised as fiction. Randazzo even opens one chapter in his own voice, eschewing showing in favor of telling, to decry how “our own children are learning to accept violence as perfectly normal” by watching violent images on television.

Randazzo says he originally wrote the book as a screenplay, and it retains the feel of one. When the characters aren’t talking, the narrator makes straightforward declarations about them: “Mario had always had a global world-view. He loved America, and had been ready to die for his country, but he knew that the future of mankind depended on embracing other cultures. He had always fought against outrages to the human spirit.”

Unlike the hawkish plots of thriller writers such as Tom Clancy, Randazzo’s novel is chock-full of left-leaning scenarios intended to counter those outrages. A Catholic and a Muslim on Mario’s staff marry, after working out their differences in one conversation using quotes from both the Bible and the Koran. Randazzo targets big-money media and their influence with his bad guys, “Metro Media.” He critiques mercenary security businesses such as Blackwater with his ancillary villain, a group called Eagle Claw. The novel depicts Vermont as both the center of operations and a magical place where (as in reality) carrying a concealed weapon is legal, the highways’ double yellow lines are only suggestions, and lovers escape to Red Rocks for their trysts. It’s all there, crowned by the love between Senator Mario and his wife, who’s also a mixed-media artist.

Certainly, the distrust that inspired the book will strike a chord with the many Vermonters whose bumpers urge other drivers to “Kill Your Television.” But, while Americans may still be addicted to “screens” of all sorts, Randazzo acknowledges that TV isn’t the monolith it once was. “Actually, television itself is going to undergo a change. I think we may have no more television after a while,” he says. “It’s going to be one entertainment unit, one computer, that does everything.”

In the meantime, those who do have screens can settle in to watch ABC’s new reality show, “Homeland Security USA,” which debuted on January 6. The transformation of federal crime catching into mass entertainment puts an ironic spin on Randazzo’s concerns. And, who knows? — ABC may even film a few scenes in that hub of national security, Williston.