Eighteen years ago, under the aegis of a Preservation Resource Grant, I assumed a mortgage on this somewhat-historic 120-year-old-house, spent eight weeks making it suitable for habitation, and then moved in, as required by the terms of the grant. Part of the initial restoration money went to repairing the original slate roof, which was no small matter.
Exactly a month later, on New Year’s Day 1993, a major rainstorm poured onto the city of New Orleans. And with that storm, rainwater began running in wide streams down my brand-new plastered and painted walls, began pooling in wide lakes on my newly leveled, sanded, and varnished floors.
Remembering the roofing bill, I was angry beyond words. I climbed the attic’s folding stairs, cursing the construction contractors loudly. With effort I clambered into the awkward space beneath the roof to see what sort of shoddy repairs allowed for such massive leakage, and with the leaks, the quick ruination of my weeks of hard work.
What I found were dozens of shattered roofing slates, and thirty-two flattened and distorted slugs scattered about the attic floor. That so many had accumulated in my attic led me to believe this was not the first time my house had been hit. There was also a brand new inch-deep indentation in the roof of my car, which had been parked in the drive beside the house. These bullets had returned to earth, having been shot skyward from the automatic weapons and assault rifles of gang-bangers across the city, some probably miles away. The metal pieces came from outlaw gunslingers who were venting their need for violent action, showing society that they could do as they wanted. They believed they could hide their gunfire under the noise of the midnight fireworks, and emptied clip upon banana clip of metal slugs skyward without a thought that they would ever return to earth, not to mention that they would eventually come down in a heavily populated urban area.
A year later on New Year’s Eve 1994, Boston tourist Amy Silberman was killed by a falling bullet while watching fireworks on the Moonwalk along the Mississippi River. One moment she was listening to music and talking to friends in the massive holiday crowd, the next she was falling to the ground, a bullet lodged in the top of her head. There were 327 reports of illegal gunfire that year.
Since that death seventeen year ago, the New Orleans Police Department has cracked down on celebratory weapons discharge, and the last reported wounding from a falling bullet happened right after Katrina, as 2005’s brutal legacy began to peak with the return of The Bad Guys. That winter, though, the National Guard came to town in force, with more and bigger guns than those held by the gangs, and the violence de-escalated.
Last year there were only 43 gunfire reports, many of which turned out to be just fireworks. But in spite of the reduction in non-essential gunfire, the essential day-to-day barrage, that shooting instigated with murder in mind, remains unabated. We are still the deadliest city in America, and much of that has its roots in the gang mentality: a group of people bond over their disregard for the value of the lives of anyone outside of their immediately reinforced group, and violence ensues.
Much like what happened last week In Arizona. A self-invented “party” – whether a single individual or thousands of active political kindred – declares defiance of the laws of the land and the essential laws of human morality, and quickly spawns extreme individuals who are literally walking loaded weapons.
Insanity is not the cause.
The murder mentality is. If you kill a person, he or she is out of your way. And that should not be considered anything except expedient. These are the consciously empowered Thugs of the twenty-first century.
A pair of recent killings here in New Orleans, a city characterized as I said as “the murder capitol of America”, is illustrative of this mindset. Both, like the New Year’s shootings, also happened on days of celebration.
One involved the tragic termination of a success story, the turn-around of Earl Wheeler, a 21-year-old man who had grown up surrounded by poverty and lack of education, but who had turned his life into a positive and productive force. He had started as a porter at the legendary Pat O’Brien’s bar in the Vieux Carré, worked long shifts and learned the business. He had just been promoted through the ranks, and a month or so earlier had been named head bartender, holding down the historic main room at the Saint Ann Street entrance of the long-standing establishment.
Earl Wheeler was thriving. According to published reports in The Times-Picayune, on a work form earlier last year he had written: "I love my job. I love the people here. I'm going to be here for a very long time."
In fact he had done so well that management was trying to help him in other areas of his life. Most recently they had helped him get his driver’s license. Only a week earlier a supervisor had personally escorted Earl to his driving test. With a license he could drive himself to work for the extended shifts he handled.
Ironically that was his downfall. As he drove home from a late night’s work on the Thanksgiving holiday, a group of loudly violent young men, gangbangers, surrounded his car at Canal and Dauphine street and began pounding on the hood. He opened the door and stood up to protest. The leader of the gang immediately pulled out an automatic weapon and unloaded it into the bartender. Wheeler died without saying a word.
Within hours, from half a dozen nearby stores, police gathered video footage of the gang cruising Canal Street, the bangers pushing their way through the late-night crowd and intimidating people as a matter of course. It was obvious from the footage that they were on the prowl and not willing to let any challenge to their dominance go unpunished, no matter how small the threat.
One camera in the Krystal hamburger shop in the first block of Bourbon street got clear pictures of all six, and in only days four of the main instigators were caught and brought in, including the alleged gunman. When they were paraded through the police’s “perp(etrator) walk” for the media, though, none of the men seemed too concerned. Certainly none showed or expressed remorse.
Pictures of the four were re-circulated after the arrests, and they were recognized as the perpetrators of a number of other crimes, one immediately preceding the murder by less than an hour. In that case of attempted murder, they were additionally charged with shooting three other people just before the bartender shooting, gunning the victims down in the Iberville projects, about six blocks from the second murder scene. They had not panicked or fled the area after that first incident, in which the people were critically injured but did not die. Neither did the shooters wait around to see if the victims were mortally wounded. They did not care, it seems, what happened. They felt safe, and justified.
The thugs had indeed been looking for someone to kill. When they finally found him, they murdered the innocent man and finally went home, having accomplished what they set out to do, infusing their “territory” with a physical sign of their power.
The unstable and dangerous mentality of like groups, however, from the remoteness of shooting automatic weapons skyward without a care, to a gang’s predilection for up-close killing, translates down into individual actions, and can prove just as lethal.
A second example, another deadly assault on a completely innocent stranger, this time involving a knife, happened less than a month prior to the bartender’s murder. The incident boiled up from the exact same sort of underlying latent violence. Violence without a single limiting hold from a human spirit.
It is again tale of a good life taken as if it were nothing, and for no reason other than to satisfy a soul filled with anger and bloodlust.
Some time after midnight on Halloween, 31 October, US Marine Sergeant Ryan Lekosky, an Iraq veteran, was walking through the French Quarter to his car with his wife. The Lekoskys were going to drive home after an evening at the Annual Marine Banquet. They were walking arm-in-arm when they heard a voice behind them, emanating from a truck, the voice randomly harassing pedestrians along Burgundy street. Suddenly the vehicle pulled up alongside the couple and, out of the blue, the male driver began insulting the sergeant’s wife in a lewd and grotesque manner. The woman became incensed and yelled back at the man, who stopped, got out of his truck and began physically assaulting her.
Sgt Lekosky attempted to get between his wife and the stranger, but as he was pulling the two of them apart, the unknown assailant produced a knife and stabbed the soldier to death.
The attacker then jumped back in his truck and sped off.
A week later he was found living overtly only one block from the scene of the murder, and was arrested with his girlfriend. Dragged in for arraignment, he seemed nonplussed that anyone would think he was at fault for the incident. He had been angry, and someone had provoked him, magnifying that anger.
Which brings this short chronology to Jared Loughner, a man whose own ongoing rage led him to focus on killing strangers he deemed to be in his way. Congresswoman Giffords was billed by conservative political figures, like Sarah Palin, to be the antithesis of what was, by all the accounts from his writing and anti-social activity, an intensely political self-righteousness. The fact that he murdered a child, a judge, and four other complete strangers, while injuring many more, does not seem to have troubled him, if his mugshot is to be judged. He was right, and any other opinion was valueless, along with the life that accompanied it.
The rhetoric of Political Thugdom empowered him, and the Thugs themselves immediately tried to distance themselves from him, and from their own widely reported statements and actions.
Palin, the increasingly rabid political caricature who only recently used a graphic representation to draw gunsight crosshairs over a map of the wounded Arizona Congresswoman’s district, immediately showed up on her Facebook page to say via video: "Journalists and pundits should not manufacture a ‘blood libel’ that serves only to incite the very hatred and violence that they purport to condemn. That is reprehensible. There are those who claim that political rhetoric is to blame for the despicable act of this apparently apolitical criminal and they claim that political debate has somehow got more heated just recently." Her own Facebook mugshot, the book cover that closely accompanies the written portion of her statement of sympathy, eerily mirrors that of Loughner.
Again, like the two incidents in New Orleans, remorse for the loss of life seemed shallow and contrived, if at all present. Best shift blame elsewhere. Bullets fell from the sky. The assailants were justifiably mad and obviously disconnected from the sources of their indignation. There were injustices and/or disempowerment involved. Righteous violence had its way, and the results were to be expected. If not excused.
But it does not matter what individual thug pulled the trigger or handled the knife. In each case the murderer was, by real and logical extension, intimately connected to a support group, a conglomerate for which extreme hate begets self-affirmation. In the Arizona incident, the right-wing prophets of cable television connect the assailants, real and imagined. The political pundits very consciously magnified and aimed the rage, and the gun, as surely as if they had held it themselves.
A party to death.