As the old saying goes, “Man’s best friend is a wall.”
Everyone has commented on the violence in the Superdome, but no one has thought about why it seemed so bad. Because it isn’t clear the violence was really anything out of the ordinary for any city in the nation.
Consider the facts: the New York Times and CNN both tell us the same thing: 10 people died at the Superdome, 24 died at the convention center.
The population of the Superdome was approximately 24,000, a good-sized town in the Midwest. That death rate works out to less than one death per 10,000 per day. The population at the convention center was 25,000, which works out to two deaths per 10,000 per day.
But we know something else about this population. "Two-thirds of the 24,000 people huddled inside [the Superdome] were women, children or elderly, and many were infirm, said Lonnie C. Swain, an assistant police superintendent overseeing the 90 policemen who patrolled the facility with 300 troops from the Louisiana National Guard."
Now, ask any demographer, and discover that most deaths in a population occur in children, especially those under age one, and in the aged. This population was heavily skewed towards the kind of people most likely to die.
Further, according to the New York Times, most did not die of violence, they died on the last day as the physical exertion of walking in the heat while insufficiently hydrated killed them.
"By the time the last buses arrived on Saturday, [New Orleans assistant police chief Swain] said, some children were so dehydrated that guardsmen had to carry them out, and several adults died while walking to the buses. State officials said yesterday that a total of 10 people died in the Superdome."
According to this Harvard study the death rate at the Superdome would have had to be 50% higher just to constitute an emergency, "The term 'complex emergency' describes a situation in which a large civilian population is affected by a combination of war, civil strife, food shortages, and population displacements. Although there are a few exceptions, complex emergencies are characterized by substantially elevated mortality rates, especially in the acute phase. An arbitrary threshold, above which an emergency is said to exist, has been established at one death per 10,000 people per day, or about three per 1000 per month. This rate is approximately two to four times the baseline rate of mortality in developing countries. (This threshold is probably less relevant in developed countries, where baseline mortality levels are considerably lower.)"
For a population of 24,000, that means the Superdome would have had to generate 15 corpses in five days for the situation to be considered an emergency. And even that number doesn't take into account that this population was skewed, with an unusually high proportion of children and elderly. The convention center situation, where the death rate was twice as high, was actually much worse, but also got much less coverage. It wasn't as photogenic.
But the real question is this: why did the people in the Superdome perceive the crime rate as being unconscionably high? After all, we’re talking about a population that tolerates a murder rate ten times higher than New York City’s. This population knows and permits crime rates that would make other cities blanch.
The difference is simply this: for five days, the people of New Orleans lived in a literal fish bowl. All of the walls were gone. They couldn’t hide inside their apartment buildings or houses and pretend nothing bad was going on.
For five days, every person in this literal city of 24,000 saw the flash of every gun shot, heard the cries of every beaten man and the screams of every raped woman in an echoing amphitheater where nothing could be ignored or evaded.
They had to watch - not what they had become - but what they had always been. They had to come face to face with the loss not only of their possessions, but of their illusions about themselves. They could no longer pretend they were good people who would do the right thing. They had to actually do the right thing.
And some of them did respond to the injustices. For instance, we know a man caught raping a young girl to death was himself beaten to death by the Superdome citizens.
We could equivocate about vigilante justice, but the state has always had the right to mete out the death penalty, and in a situation where there is no place to put an unrepentant criminal, it is hard to say the citizens of this temporary city did the wrong thing.
The press would have us write off the Superdome crowd as animals, but the case is not so cut and dried. If we had put 24,000 New Yorkers into a similar fishbowl after 9/11, would it have turned out any differently? How many of us would like to be stripped of all we own and sit in a huge circle with 24,000 fellow citizens of our fair city? For five days? With no walls to hide behind?