Monday, September 05, 2005

New Orleans Helicopter Shooting--Urban Legend?

For days now, we've been hearing about the supposed shots fired on a rescue helicopter at the New Orleans Superdome as a prime symbol of the "anarchy" and "lawlessness" that took over the city in the wake of Katrina and hampered relief efforts. But did it really happen?

My answer: I don't know, and at this point I would submit that no one actually knows.

A search of Google turns up hundreds of articles in which people mention and decry the incident based on obvious hearsay. The usual phrasing is, "There are reports that," "News outlets are stating that," and so on. The closest thing to actual reporting that I have found is this story from Reuters, which is sourced as follows:

But the operation was put on hold when shots were fired at Chinook military helicopters being used to transport the evacuees, a local official said in Texas.

"We were told they are shooting at Chinook helicopters and the operation has been put on hold until daylight," said Gloria Roemer, spokeswoman for Harris County Judge Robert Eckels, who has been involved in the evacuation.

A subsequent AP story contained these paragraphs:

Lt.-Col. Pete Schneider of the Louisiana National Guard said law enforcement officers would accompany the evacuees on the school buses.

"At the Superdome, we have a report that one shot was fired at a Chinook helicopter," Schneider said, adding that the Chinook is "an extremely large aircraft."

Laura Brown, a Federal Aviation Administration spokeswoman in Washington, said she had no such report.

"We're controlling every single aircraft in that airspace and none of them reported being fired on," she said, adding that the FAA was in contact with the military as well as civilian aircraft.

So unless I am missing something, news reports about this incident were based on a comment by a spokesperson for a judge in Texas--which is a far cry from an eyewitness account. And they were later denied by a spokesperson for the agency in charge of "every single aircraft in that airspace."

It will take time to sort out much of what happened in New Orleans. But for now, this story--which has played a prominent role in the law-and-order spin being given the Katrina story in many media outlets--appears at least highly dubious.

I'm old enough to remember stories after the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago about protesters shooting police, throwing Molotov cocktails, etc. etc. Months later the official commission investigating the unrest found that virtually no protesters were armed, and they concluded that the violence at the convention was caused by "a police riot." During times of unrest, the media tends to accept and amplify tales they get from officials that fit their preconceived storylines, some of which turn out to be completely false. This may turn out to be more of the same.
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