Apr 22, 201309:59 AM
The Editor's Room
Weekly Commentary with New Orleans Magazine’s Errol Laborde
Terror in Two Cities: New Orleans and Boston, Then and Now
Last week’s tragedy in Boston brought to mind when New Orleans had its own moment of terror. That was on Jan. 7, 1973, when a sniper began shooting from the roof of the downtown Howard Johnson’s hotel. Coupled with an earlier spree in the vicinity of the parish prison that began New Year’s Eve 1972, the sniper, Mark Essex, ultimately killed nine people including five police officers. Thirteen people were injured. The incident ended overnight when Essex was shot from a U.S. Marine helicopter hovering over the building.
Like Boston, what happened in New Orleans was the biggest story in the world over the course of a few days. Here are a few similarities and differences between the incidents.
One was a sniper attack; the other involved bombs. Only in the end was gunfire used in the Boston incident.
Types of Media
While there was global media coverage in 1973, there was less mass media. There were no cable news networks and, of course, no social media. In the Unites States there were three television networks that provided the live coverage. The programming, while extensive, was funneled through fewer outlets.
No Presidential Visit
Presidents did not routinely visit these sorts of tragedies at that time. That began to change with the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. President Bill Clinton’s visit was no doubt comforting, but also gave him a chance to look presidential and, as polls show, strengthened his then floundering presidency. Subsequent presidents have routinely visited high profile disaster sites.
No SWAT Teams
There would have likely been fewer police casualties had the concept of SWAT teams, trained and equipped to deal with volatile situations, been developed by 1973, but that was in the future. The local police did the best they could but had no playbook. Too often they proved to be an easy target for the sniper.
Mark Essex was 23. The Tsarnaev brothers were 19 and 26. Average age, 22 1/2.
In both situations there were attacks over two non-consecutive days. From Essex, it was Dec. 31 and Jan. 7. In Boston, it was April 15 and April 18.
This time it was the cable news networks that provided the wall-to-wall coverage rather than the big three. In both cases regular coverage was interrupted. In 1973 the networks broke into Monday morning programs to show police, prepared for a shootout, accessing the roof, only to find the body of just one person.
Cities stood still
All activities were canceled in New Orleans that Sunday and most of the day Monday. Fearing uncertainty, the people of New Orleans, like those in Boston, stayed home.
Gun battles in the evening
During the darks hours of Sunday, Jan. 7, 1973, people who lived near downtown New Orleans could hear the haunting sound of a gun battle as sharpshooters in the helicopter took aim at Essex; the world would hear similar sounds, via the Internet, as a gun battle took place in Watertown, Mass., that Thursday night.
In 1973 there was much concern that the incident was part of a nationwide conspiracy. The Louisiana Attorney General even said he thought such a conspiracy existed. The nation had gone through the uneasy years of the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights struggle. A decade earlier President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated; his brother, Robert, had been murdered in 1968 two months after Martin Luther King, Jr. had been fatally shot. In New Orleans it was ultimately resolved that Essex acted alone and was not part of a larger movement, in Boston the questions are, as yet, unresolved.
Jan. 7, 1973, was the second full day of the Carnival season in New Orleans. There was some talk about canceling the upcoming parades including those on Mardi Gras, which was March 6 that year. To the contrary, the overwhelming feeling was that the city had to prove itself and to soothe its wounds. Mardi Gras went on peacefully and successfully. As will happen with the people of Boston, New Orleanians were finding their way back.