Papal Panic! Could the Pope’s Visit Be a Giant, Embarrassing Flop?

In 1976, Frank Rizzo's blustery fearmongering kept people away from the Bicentennial in droves. Are we doing the same thing with Francis?

Pope Francis | giulio napolitano / Frank Rizzo | AP

Pope Francis | giulio napolitano / Frank Rizzo | AP

I’m starting to get a little worried about this papal visit.

I think it was a story in the Inquirer about gunmen on the Parkway during the outdoor Mass that got to me. Here’s what it said: “The most critical monitoring will likely come from snipers on the many rooftops lining the Parkway. Their job, frankly, is to spot trouble, not necessarily to shoot it … they’re the ones who pick up someone who’s moving in the wrong direction in the crowd or moving a little faster than they need — anything out of the ordinary, they’ll report from above.”

The speaker there is Steven Bucci, director of the Center for Foreign and National Security Policy at conservative think tank the Heritage Foundation. I find it kind of scary to think that becoming disoriented in the crowd or walking too fast could put a bead on my head. Then there was this, from Henry Willis of the nonprofit RAND Corporation, which according to the Inky also focuses on national security:

Events like a visit from the Pope can bring out all sorts of people, and you have to be concerned about security from everything from very purposeful malicious sophisticated threats to attackers who are upset or deranged individuals.

Welcome to Philadelphia, y’all!

I’m so old that I remember the nation’s Bicentennial back in 1976. I was in college then, home for the summer, pissed off about the war in Vietnam that had recently ended but still proud of my country and of Philadelphia, where the great experiment of democracy had begun. I was looking forward to the tens of thousands of visitors expected to throng the city for parades and fireworks and the world’s biggest birthday party.

It didn’t turn out that way.

In case you weren’t around back then, here’s what happened thanks to then-Mayor Frank Rizzo, as explained by Christopher Capozzola in his piece “It Makes You Want to Believe in the Country” in the book America in the 70s:

In an interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer [Rizzo] insisted that a plot was underway to undermine the city’s Bicentennial celebrations. “The leftists … intend to come in here in thousands from all over the country to disrupt. … ”

Rizzo demanded 15,000 federal troops to defend the city against “a substantial coalition of leftist radicals”; his request was turned down, so on the eve of July Fourth he warned, “I hope and pray that nothing occurs, but I know this — a lot of people are coming to this town who are bent on violence. …”

What happened? Philadelphia gave a birthday party and nobody came. People stayed away in droves, frightened off by the mayor’s blustery fearmongering. As it turned out, not a single protester was arrested. But marching bands, would-be partygoers, spectators, honored guests and state representatives from across the nation never arrived. “In the end,” writes Capozzola, “most of the viewers of Philadelphia’s celebrations watched from the comfort of their living rooms.” That’s what I did.

It’s looking like the Pope’s visit could turn out the same way. I understand that the city has to make plans and take precautions. But I also know that we’ve become a fearful, squeamish society, quick to become alarmed at any threat of danger. Who’s going to bring the kids to see the Pope when snipers line the rooftops? Who wants to stand exposed on the Parkway, at the mercy of “deranged individuals”? For every scrap of good news about the Pope’s visit, we’ve been bombarded by a barrage of bad news: Families of patients in hospitals will have nowhere to stay! Hotels are booked full! Residents are charging $14,000 to rent a rowhouse! They’re building a fence all around the city! The city’s parks will be opened to campers! (Yuck! It’s Occupy Philly all over again!) Suburban train stations will be flooded with cars! Public transit and traffic will be paralyzed! More from the Inquirer:

FEMA is on alert in case of a natural disaster or infrastructure crisis. The FBI’s hostage team will be on hand, as will the National Guard, Pennsylvania State Police, the Secret Service, Philadelphia police, Vatican City police, Italian police, and the Swiss Guard, the Pope’s primary security detail. … Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey has said he would seek police reinforcements from neighboring states. …

Well, doesn’t that sound like a barrel of fun.

Aggravating the problem is SEPTA, whose convoluted plans to try to accommodate the masses are beyond human comprehension. I need a special rail pass? Only a limited number of them will be sold? Only a few stations will be open? I have to buy my pass online? “It will be valid only for travel from the specified outlying station during the selected time slot, and for travel from Center City back to that station after the Papal Visit events”? I need a whole other papal pass to ride the buses or subway? WTF, SEPTA — are you trying to drive people away?

Listen, I know it’s fun to get all worked up and be alarmist. I also know what it can cost the city — in terms of money that doesn’t come in, goodwill that gets squandered, prestige that’s lost — when the alarmists win. Rizzo showed us that back in ’76. I read the New York Times every day, and I’ll be damned if I see a flood of articles bemoaning the trials that city will face when the Pope visits there. In fact, I don’t see any such articles at all. New York knows: Cities get through these things. You plan, you make contingencies — but you don’t stand on street corners and wail and gnash your teeth and wring your hands.

We’re a big city, Philadelphia. We can handle this. We don’t have to blow it again. So everybody, please, take a deep breath and move back from the ledge. He’s one guy — one gentle, humble guy — who’s coming to visit. You think Francis wants us getting all worked up like this?

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