Spraying bullets into a crowd at Bunny Friend Park a week ago Sunday was a disgusting and incredibly stupid thing to do. But was Mayor Mitch Landrieu right in likening it to “domestic terrorism?”
His choice of words was a respectful salute to Paris and the attacks by Islamic militants that killed 130 people a week earlier — a far more hideous event, obviously. That doesn’t make the park shootout a local version of what the French have endured, first with last January’s Charlie Hebdo assassinations, then with the mid-November gunfire and suicide bombings at a rock concert, a café, restaurants and a soccer stadium.
Yes, the events at Bunny Friend Park “terrorized” those caught in the crossfire, not least the 17 people who were shot. And an incident like that should strike fear in the hearts of all New Orleanians concerned about this troubled city’s worsening penchant for careless violence.
No doubt the antagonisms behind the gunfire fulfilled the other part of the mayor’s description as well: they were “domestic,” in the sense that they were homegrown. No international elements — least of all Muslim jihadists — are thought to have been involved.
The closest and saddest commonality between Paris and Bunny Friend may be that the victims on both sides of the Atlantic were overwhelmingly young people out for nothing more than a good time.
Among the jihadists, with their fearful scorn for the personal freedoms associated with Western culture, pleasure seeking by itself seems to inspire acts of primitive rage. For the gunmen in the park, the people milling around in the aftermath of a neighborhood second-line were less an affront than an opportunity. They provided camouflage for gang members to clumsily attempt a show of force and then fade into the crowd — which is exactly what some of them managed to do, notwithstanding appeals from the mayor and Police Chief Michael Harrison for community help in identifying the perpetrators.
Landrieu came up with other ways to describe the assailants: “infuriating,” “insane,” “knuckleheads” — and with those words he hit the nail on the head.
That does not mean the United States is lacking in domestic versions of terrorism. There is no better term for the self-styled Christian fundamentalists who have shot and killed employees of abortion clinics. The militants’ grasp of Christian truth may be faulty to the point of travesty, but they surely qualify as terrorists in any society that values the rule of law.
So do the racists in Minneapolis who, a day after the Bunny Friend Park mayhem, shot five demonstrators protesting the recent police killing of an unarmed black man, Jamar Clark.
It remains to be seen if Robert Dear, the man arrested last Friday after allegedly shooting up a Planned Parenthood center in Colorado Springs, was just another psycho in a country with idiotic gun policies or the agent of a coherent, if demented, political philosophy.
Given the way Planned Parenthood has been vilified by Gov. Jindal and other yahoos of the far right, it is entirely plausible that Dear is not just nuts. As police suggest, he appears to have drawn inspiration from the politics of hysteria and dread perpetrated by Jindal’s ilk and cast himself in the role of the anti-abortion movement’s avenging angel.
Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper buys into this diagnosis. He has declared Dear’s rampage to be a form of terrorism. The police quote Dear mumbling some of the anti-abortion rhetoric — “no more baby parts” — that has welled up following release of a doctored film purporting to show Planned Parenthood operatives scheming to sell fetal tissue, a practice the organization denies.
Moderate Muslim clerics have been faulted for not speaking out loudly enough against the use of their religion embodied in jihadist violence. Will the political right — Ted Cruz, for example, and the NRA gun lobby — have the courage to disown the home-grown Christian jihadism that has stirred so many gunmen to action, including, it seems, the Planned Parenthood shooter? Don’t count on it.
As for the most recent mass murder, the one Wednesday in California: The death toll stood at 14, but as of Wednesday evening it was unclear from police reports what inspired a heavily armed couple to enter a San Bernardino service center for people with disabilities and open fire.
You might be tempted to argue that the difference between Bunny Friend and Paris or Colorado Springs pivots on ideology or the lack of it. The anti-abortion militants, like the Minneapolis racists, are terroristic; they subscribe to a broader agenda, however perverted, and see themselves as agents of history. The knuckleheads who brought guns to Bunny Friend are something else — mere gangsters, perhaps. But that supposes there is a bright line separating ideologues from their more primitive brethren.
In reality, it’s not so easy to distinguish simple street violence from the more infectious kind of terrorism that builds on political or religious extremism. And one can devolve into the other, as history amply shows. Crackpots and rowdies can be mobilized by political opportunists — as we’re seeing on the political right in this country today. It’s also happening in France, under the xenophobic banner held aloft by Marine Le Pen, notwithstanding recent efforts to distance the burgeoning Front National from the more overtly anti-Semitic politics of Le Pen’s father, her predecessor as party leader.
Just as often, semi-coherent political militancy can collapse into mere rowdyism, as when civil rights and anti-war protests degenerate into looting sprees, something commonly seen at least since the 1960s.
Nazism, as practiced and perfected by Hitler, fed on the simple chaos of the Weimar economy, eventually turning roving bands of unemployed men into more disciplined storm troopers.
Here in the homeland, the racist lynch mobs responsible for so many deaths well into the 20th century were participants in a numbingly predictable civic ritual: roust the suspected malefactor from the town jail, castrate and torture him a bit; hang him high, then revel below the hanged corpse until it ceased to twitch and could be cut down, poked with sticks and otherwise desecrated.
The grinning revelers may have been stirred by sheer bigotry, a simple-minded emotion. But in the context of Jim Crow, lynching was terrorism, the enforcing arm of a fully evolved system of social control. The hanging parties were in every sense comparable to ISIS beheadings recorded in the desert and broadcast around the world. White supremacy, to give the system a name, reached full flower thanks to the failure of American towns and churches — especially but not exclusively in the South — to denounce and subdue mob rule.
At this juncture, events like Bunny Friend seem unlikely to transcend the kind of turf battles, vengeance killings and pecking-order disputes that underlie most gang clashes. We can split hairs with Landrieu over whether the Bunny Friend gunmen should or should not be grouped with jihadists, lynch mobs and anti-abortion fanatics.
But there’s no questioning the need to sound alarms about the spiraling violence in New Orleans and to do everything possible to understand the social and political metabolism of these gangs and do what it takes to starve them out of existence.
Jed Horne’s books include “Desire Street,” about the botched prosecution of a suspect in the mid-1980s murder of a New Orleans housewife. He is an editor of The Lens.