It takes courage to laugh in the face of fear. This Friday, amid the steady beat of war drums and rising threat of terrorist attacks, the 12-day Carnival parade season begins, leading up to Mardi Gras on March 4. Admittedly, revelers will have more on their mind than choosing the right costume.
An American-led invasion of Iraq seems imminent. North Korea continues to threaten with its nuclear program. Osama bin Laden has called for attacks against Americans. And the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the American Red Cross have urged American families to stockpile food, water and other supplies in case of a terrorist strike.
Terry Ebbert, who took office last week as Mayor Ray Nagin's director of homeland security, ranks New Orleans in the top 10 targets for attack by foreign terrorists. Both the FBI and the U.S. Attorney's office concur that our city's massive public events may make a tempting target for publicity-seeking terrorists. There even has been some hand wringing over whether the city should cancel Mardi Gras.
The answer, in our opinion, is a resounding "NO."
Simply put, the show must roll on. In the absence of unforeseen events and an immediate threat to the city -- and directives from the highest authorities -- we should all endeavor to make this year the best Mardi Gras yet. "I think it would be very unlikely that the president or anybody in authority would want the parades to be cancelled," says Mardi Gras historian Errol Laborde. "I think the chance is far greater that Mardi Gras would be cancelled because of rain than because of any international or military event."
Since Sept. 11, international experts on terrorism have told us that the best way to "defeat" the terrorists is to stick to our normal routine. Certainly, "normal" is not the first word that comes to mind when we think of Mardi Gras, but New Orleans should be willing to strike a blow for freedom the best way it knows how. We will make the same wartime preparations as other Americans -- perhaps better, in light of our seasonal hurricane warnings -- but we could do even more.
There is good reason to turn out in costume this Mardi Gras in unprecedented numbers. Why? To show an increasingly dangerous planet that there is a massive, concerted effort underway to bring out the best in mankind: sustained laughter, artistic creativity, merriment and peaceful camaraderie. Dozens of parade krewes in the New Orleans area -- along with scores of truck floats, marching clubs, marching bands and Mardi Gras Indians -- all stand ready to hit the streets to prove this point.
Make no mistake. New Orleanians are aware of the dangers in the world -- just as we are aware of the daily challenges we face in our city and state. But we take Carnival like an annual tonic to restore our spirits and to define ourselves as a community. As Carnival historian Arthur Hardy has noted in his annual Mardi Gras Guide, Fat Tuesday has been cancelled only 13 times since the Krewe of Comus first paraded in 1857. Of those 13 years our city suffered without Carnival, 10 years were due to armed conflict: the Civil War, the two world wars and one year -- 1951 -- of the Korean conflict. (A latter cancellation deserves a footnote. Says Laborde: "There had been a fire in the Rex den, but there was still a parade that day.")
More recently, Carnival in 1973 proceeded peacefully amid widespread fears of radical violence less than two months after a self-styled revolutionary killed 10 people before being shot to death himself during the police siege of a hotel that paralyzed the Central Business District. ("Heroes of Howard Johnson's," Jan. 7). Rumors of more trouble were rampant, but New Orleans persevered. Tens of thousands of local revelers left their homes and poured into the streets. Comedian Bob Hope reigned as Bacchus. The spirit of Carnival triumphed again.
The last time Mardi Gras was "cancelled" was in 1979 -- during the New Orleans police strike. Even that year, despite the cancellation of parades in Orleans Parish, the spirit of Carnival prevailed. The Vieux Carré was cordoned off for a massive costume party. No NOPD officers were in sight on Canal Street that Mardi Gras morning, but thousands of defiant revelers headed to the French Quarter for an unprecedented celebration overseen by State Police and National Guard troops.
The city did not stop Carnival during the Vietnam era (1964-1975) or the Persian Gulf War (1990-1991). And this year, with the nation's alert raised to orange for "high-risk," we look forward to the parades, the marching clubs and the streets pulsing with joyous music. We will yell for beads and doubloons, don costumes and once again laugh in the face of fear -- because it's what we do, and we do it better here than anywhere else in the world. Now more than ever, the show must roll on.