After the MOVE Disaster
In the aftermath of the tragedy in West Philadelphia the city's first concern has to be for the hundreds of homeless who had lived in the houses destroyed by fire. They were the unintended victims of an operation that was designed to get rid of MOVE but burned down much of the neighborhood in the process. They must be adequately provided for, both temporarily and on a permanent basis.
Mayor Goode, reaffirming (Tuesday) a promise he had made Monday night as flames were roaring through rows of houses in and around the 6200 block of Osage Avenue, has assured the homeless that the city will provide emergency shelter on an interim basis and also replacement homes. Gov. Thornburgh lost no time in pledging state assistance.
Cost of rebuilding the burned out neighborhood will be in the millions of dollars. Whatever the required amount, it must be provided in full and expeditiously. Promises to the homeless must be implemented on a priority basis.
That is the paramount responsibility now. . . .
It is important, too, that correct and proper lessons be learned from the ill-fated move against MOVE. They can be learned only after all of the facts have been assembled and analyzed in detail. This is no time for second- guessing and hasty judgment.
Scores of homes were wiped out by fire -- clear evidence that the operation wasn't carried out as planned -- but it doesn't necessarily follow that avoidable mistakes were made in drawing up or executing the plan. The mission was by definition filled with hazardous uncertainties. The mayor had decided, wisely and in response to demands from neighbors, to evict a radical group that was armed and prone to violence and had turned a house in the middle of a row into a fortress. There was no easy, safe or predictable way to get the job done. . . .
With the advantage of 20/20 hindsight it can clearly be seen that dropping an explosive device on the house from a helicopter was a mistake. But it might have been viewed as a clever tactic if the bomb had demolished the bunker on top of the house, blown a hole in the roof to allow for entry of water and tear gas, and occupants had been captured with no casualties. Bold strokes win applause -- but only when they work.
As it turned out, the sequel to the bombing by helicopter was a catastrophe. Police, firefighters and government officials plainly were not cautious enough regarding the dangers of aerial bombardment in an urban setting, including the need for advance readiness to contain a fire resulting from the dropping of an explosive device. Although firefighters were justifiably concerned about gunfire from MOVE members, it has to be asked whether more effective steps could have been taken to contain the fire in its early stages without endangering the lives of firefighters.
In 1978 and again this week the city had costly confrontations with MOVE members after allowing them to turn a house into a heavily armed fort. Plans must be devised to prevent such occurrences in the future. No one should be allowed to build a bunker on a rooftop for obviously hostile purposes. Again, it is easier to see the truth with hindsight, but city officials should resolve to avoid repetition of the mistake of allowing MOVE to get entrenched in a neighborhood and hold it hostage. . . .
The city's move against MOVE attracted national media attention, even before the fire swept through the neighborhood, but public information facilities at the scene were not commensurate with the magnitude of the developments. Continuous on-the-scene media liaison is essential during such confusion, to prevent rumors and misinformation, which often make bad situations worse. . . .
To keep the whole tragic affair in perspective, it must be remembered that it came about because MOVE had created intolerable conditions in a West Philadelphia neighborhood. If blame is to be assessed, MOVE must be at the top of the list.