“It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.”
Vietnam War Correspondent Peter Arnett claimed to have overheard this quote from an unnamed American major regarding the shelling of of Bến Tre city in early 1968. Its veracity is questionable, and in any event, Bến Tre was largely rubble due to attacks from the north before US artillery began its assault to rout the Vietcong.
However, that dubious quote has lingered as a paradigmatic example of a peculiar brand of cognitive dissonance: the notion that you can intentionally eradicate something in the midst of preserving it. Obviously, you can’t have it both ways, but a similar idea has come to mind in the wake of the shooting on Bourbon Street this past weekend in which one person was killed and nine others were wounded.
Given the public’s thirst for blood-stained headlines, it should come as little surprise that the incident made national news. Reuters, the London Telegraph, Al Jazeera, the Washington Post – all published stories on the shooting.
Many pundits blamed this weekend’s Bayou Classic, the annual football showdown between Grambling State University and Southern University, as an example of violence between revelers in the French Quarter. However, contrary to the protestations of Mayor Landrieu, there is no solid proof that the violence was perpetrated by outsiders.
Indeed, previous shootings on Bourbon Street have been attributed to locals, and New Orleans is certainly no stranger to violent crime. Any attempts to blame outside elements belie the fact that we are a violent city. For better or worse, locals are generally killed by other locals.
Still, it came with little surprise that the news of the shooting was met with frenzied, extreme reactions from certain quarters. Some of the worst public policy proposals come in the wake of tragedies, when dumbstruck minds search for any possible solution, no matter how ill-considered.
It was in this vein that Sidney D. Torres, our own presumptive mayoral hopeful and notorious garbage magnate, proposed turning Bourbon Street into a walled attraction, complete with armed security and metal detectors. Everyone entering Bourbon would be stopped without probable cause and searched for firearms.
“For special events and times, we need to treat Bourbon Street like the Superdome with 70,000 people in it,” Torres told reporters. “People know that when they go to the Dome, they will be safe because everyone is scanned by a wand for guns. Lives are being lost, and one of our most critically important cultural gems is being threatened.”
Brazenly and tellingly, Torres admitted that he’d given the proposal very little thought.
“This is an idea that I came up with within an hour,” Torres said. “When you have national news out there that’s showing one dead, somebody blazing guns in the middle of a crowded promenade, I think it’s important for someone to call for action.”
Torres likened his proposal to one already implemented on Beale Street in Memphis, Tennessee, where admission is charged during special events and all ingress and egress is tightly controlled. A public street has become a private entertainment district.
Of course, Torres’ plan doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. The problem with coming up with a proposal on a veritable cocktail napkin is that it will be, invariably, an awful suggestion. Here, Torres ignores the fact that Bourbon Street is plainly not a location where guns are prohibited, and there is no legal authority for arbitrarily searching persons attempting to enter a public right-of-way. It might stick in Torres’ craw, but the people of New Orleans still have rights.
The only clear way Torres’ plan could work is if the city literally sold off Bourbon Street or otherwise leased it to private interests. That’s not desirable, and it’s also not politically feasible.
If, by some miracle, we did decide to auction off Bourbon Street to provide for greater security, it would be cutting off our proverbial news to spite our collective face. We would be accepting the necessity of destroying Bourbon Street in order to save it.
Bourbon Street, like other prominent parts of New Orleans, are defined by the fact that they are fully-integrated into the public sphere and are open to all. They aren’t faux constructs like the individual sections of Disney World; they’re components of an actual, functioning municipality. They’re less safe than a theme park, but they’re also real.
That said, we don’t need to accept the regular drumbeat of violent crime. However, the moment we decide that the integrity of New Orleans is subservient to safety, we’ve lost, completely and utterly. A safe city means little if our heart is sacrificed.
Torres is recommending surrender based on perceived necessity, even if it means our own destruction. He’s wrong. It’s cognitive dissonance, plain and simple.
Owen Courrèges, a New Orleans attorney and resident of the Garden District, offers his opinions for UptownMessenger.com on Mondays. He has previously written for the Reason Public Policy Foundation.