Cover of A Terrible Thunder

I first heard about the New Orleans sniper from a column in the New Orleans Gambit Weekly: "Ask Blake". I thought it was an unusual and interesting story, but made no effort to pursue it.

This past weekend (the last of January, 2002), I noticed this book at a friend's house and asked to borrow it. The story told is, for me, a great read, but the best parts come at the end, after Mark Essex, the sniper, is dead.

First, some background: Mark Essex made an assault on the New Orleans Broad Street police station New Years Eve, 1972. He killed one officer and fatally wounded another. Though they were close to capturing him, he ultimatly escaped that night. A week later, he struck again. This time he ended up on the rooftop of the Downtown Howard Johnson where he set fires and sniped on people in the area for almost 12 hours before he was finally killed.

In the ensuing inevitable journalistic analysis, one newspaper reporter noted the similarities (black man on the roof of a hotel) between the real-life sniper and the one portrayed in Walker Percy's then-recent Love in the Ruins. Percy, when asked about the connection, said it was "the weirdest sort of coincidence." However, the author of A Terrible Thunder points to this passage from Percy's novel as very relevent to what motivated the sniper:

Was it the nigger business from the beginning? What a bad joke: God saying, here it is, the new Eden, and it is yours because you're the apple of my eye; because you the lordly Westerners, the fierce Caucasian-Gentile-Visigoths, believed in me and the outlandish Jewish Event even though you were nowhere near it and had to hear the news of it from strangers. But you believed and so I gave it all to you, gave you Israel and Greece and science and art and the lordship of the earth, and finally even gave you the new world that I blessed for you. And all you had to do was pass one little test, which was surely child's play for you had already passed the big one. One little test: here's a helpless man in Africa, all you have to do is not violate him. That's all.

One little test: you flunk!

Meanwhile, Mark Essex had encountered the twin evils of black nationalism and white racism in the Navy and something snapped. He had been violated and the militantly idealistic literature and people to which he was exposed encouraged him to violate his oppressors right back. He devoured books like Black Rage which must have helped him rationalize his violent assault.

His parents were understandably confused. How could their son be the one who mounted this terrific assault in downtown New Orleans? But, later, his mother was also angry at society for provoking it: "The same old discrimination that made my son do what he did is just as strong as it ever was and it will drive others to violence just like it did [Mark]. It can't be helped. I'm sorry."

His actions resonated with young black adults during his time. The keeper of the graveyard where Mark's unmarked grave was said that he they would come and stand by his grave. "It sure makes you think."

Indeed. Although we do not have as many race riots and organisations like the Black Panthers have died out, there is still enough racial tension that occasionally some Black rage will surface.

While the marginalisation is not as prevalent, I still see enough prejudice every day — people still judge someone they don't know soley on the basis of skin color or appearance — that some feel provoked to lash out.

And despite all that, in the account of Mark Essex' anger, violence, and death, I'm compelled to see the fruitlessness of most idealism. Idealism is almost always frustrated, and, when frustrated but still pursued, often leads to violence. Mark was an idealist that believed, rightly, that a black man should be able to live freely, with dignity and respect. When this ideal was frustrated, he turned to violence to accomplish his goals. He didn't offer the fundamental respect he sought from others and died as a result.