State made heroes out of violent criminals

Jim Lee

Not too many Americans realize the capital of Latvia is Riga. Then again, not too many Americans give a rat’s left ear about the capital of Latvia. That’s why this week’s topic has absolutely nothing to do with Latvia, or Riga for that matter.
Instead, I want to mention an anniversary from a month ago that probably went by just about as noticed as Riga. In another capital city (Paris) a mob stormed a prison called the Bastille and set off the French Revolution. This was July 14, 1789.
Ninety-two years later, another jailbreak led to a memorable July 14 event: the shooting of Billy the Kid by Pat Garrett at Fort Sumner. For those who pay attention to such things, Garrett’s daughter, Elizabeth, wrote the New Mexico State song “O Fair New Mexico.”
As coincidental as these incidents seem to be, something amazes me even more. I simply fail to understand why Billy the Kid has become a tourism industry in itself. What’s next? Will the state tourism department declare the Kid’s birthday a state holiday? Why have we made a folk hero out of a violent criminal? The state seems to point with pride to a delinquent who amounted to a 19th century Clyde without a Bonnie.
In addition to the memorabilia in and around Lincoln, the famous grave just outside Fort Sumner, and all the other plaques and monuments effectively deifying this homicidal Victorian, his boyhood home at Main and Broadway in Silver City is being turned into a shrine. And this is sanctioned by the New Mexico Department of Tourism, the Silver City/Grant County Chamber of Commerce, and the Main Street Project. The project is bankrolled in large part by movie director Ron Howard.
Are we that desperate for a hero? What’s next, Tomb of the Unknown Hoodlum in front of the FBI Building with a prison trustee honor guard?
I don’t understand why we have to erect monuments to McCarty, Antrim, Bonney, Kid Killer, or whatever anybody wants to call him. (He needs two headstones to hold all the aliases.) It would make just as much sense to have a Pretty Boy Floyd Parade in Oklahoma. How about a John Dillinger charm pageant, or Ma Barker’s picture on Mother’s Day cards? Maybe the John Gotti Follies will make a hit on Broadway.
Here’s an even better idea. Let’s show some respect to the real heroes New Mexico has produced. We had more men at Bataan than any other state, many of them giving their lives for our country instead of taking them like the Kid.
How many lives did our Navajo Code Talkers save? And what about a fine man like George Reynolds who served in World War II, gave the rest of his professional life protecting us as a peace officer, and is still serving the people of Portales with his volunteer work?
Playing Old West outlaw can be fun, and it’s fine in the proper perspective, but let’s set a better example for our young people than glorifying a hoodlum like Billy the Kid. We have no shortage of heroes, so let’s keep things in perspective.

Jim Lee is news director for KENW-FM radio. He also is an English instructor. He can be contacted at 359-2204. His e-mail: