For the first time in his life a relative heard live machine gun fire. The sound echoed through the buildings of the New Orleans skyline. From his position on the deck of a French Quarter attic apartment he could see the white lights of a police helicopter floating through the night sky. The noise of the helicopter engine was the only harmony, on this otherwise hushed evening, to the clatter of the bullets. New Orleans seemed violated that night as he heard the ricochets of men shooting at each other.
No single criminal event in this nation’s history compares in horror to what happened ten years ago this week, on Sept. 11, 2001, but the numbing memories bring to mind that terrible January day in 1973 when New Orleans plunged into its own terrorist crisis. For two days everything stopped, nothing else mattered. An entire community was shocked. Sniper fire from the top of the then Howard Johnson Hotel on Loyola Avenue had the town in a tailspin. Throughout that Sunday afternoon, the news got worse. Victims included a married couple staying at the hotel, a deputy police chief and two other patrolmen. Downtown was under siege.
America was a nervous place in the early 1970s, coming off the upheaval of the Vietnam War and only a few years removed from the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Sen. Robert Kennedy. New Orleans was already in a mournful mood because only a few months earlier a fire in a downtown office building, not far from the Howard Johnson, had left scarred memories of people leaping to their death.
That fire had been ruled to be an accident, but on this January day, New Orleanians clustered around their television sets watching live shots of a fire that a sniper had set on the hotel’s top floor. They also saw scenes of the police firing endless rounds at the buildings. The greatest fear was in the uncertainty. For all that anyone knew, there might have been several snipers in the hotel and others could be lurking on neighboring rooftops. One state official suggested the likelihood of an international conspiracy. The sniper might have been firing the first shots of World War III, and New Orleans was its Pearl Harbor.
When the smoke cleared we would learn that it was all the work of one man acting alone. He had been made mad by his own sense of personal injustice and not by political ideology or religious fanaticism. The sniper was just someone who had turned bad.
In those days the word “closure” had not evolved as a clichéd pop-psychology term spoken in the aftermath of tragedies. While New Orleanians were relieved that there was no evidence of a conspiracy, no on had the gall to suggest that the several new widows would find closure from the news of the sniper being gunned down. Their loss would remain forever.
As the bullet- riddled body of the assailant was taken from the roof, New Orleanians were at least spared the worry of wondering who did it or if he would do it again.
Once the incident was over, all that the community could do was resolve to stand strong, make a comeback and to not let the bad guys ruin the future. And New Orleans did rebound. Because the incident happened at the beginning of the carnival season there was talk that the parades should be canceled that year. But they were not. Mardi Gras happened, and was especially peaceful in defiance of the world around it.
Gradually the hotel was restored and reopened. Ownership changed. The building is now a Holiday Inn, a happy place featuring a towering clarinet painted on the side and great murals inside that depict the rich jazz history of the neighborhood.
Now the incident is a faint memory even to those who were living in New Orleans at the time. For most people, other than the families of victims, scars heal quickly – especially in a land where there are few such incidents to trigger old memories.
But the world is filled with people to whom horror is not such a distant memory. A former colleague from Peru told me about the throbbing feeling she suddenly got in her head when she saw the scenes of the World Trade Center towers collapsing. It was the same feeling, she recalled, that she felt during campus unrest when she was a university student in Peru. The throbbing would begin once she got on the bus to go to school.
In the rotunda of a public building in Boston, an inscription written in the founding days of the nation once impressed me. The message said that a country must be ruled by politicians and soldiers in the beginning so that poets, philosophers and educators can rule in the future. On the morning of Sept. 11, the President of the United States was in Florida to talk about education. Suddenly his attention was shifted to war.
What happened in New Orleans in ’73 was minuscule compared to the tragedy that this nation suffered, but America is recovering. And maybe one day the streets will be filled with poetry rather than the screams of sirens at night.