COLUMN

Overreacting to random killings

More than 40 million people toured Florida last year and only one-tenth of one per cent were victimized by crime

FRED BRUNING October 4 1993
COLUMN

Overreacting to random killings

More than 40 million people toured Florida last year and only one-tenth of one per cent were victimized by crime

FRED BRUNING October 4 1993

Overreacting to random killings

COLUMN

AN AMERICAN VIEW

More than 40 million people toured Florida last year and only one-tenth of one per cent were victimized by crime

FRED BRUNING

Foreign visitors can be pardoned for thinking otherwise, but Miami is one of the great U.S. cities—a hustling, high-energy, cross-cultural carnival of a town where street life survives deep into the night and where the egalitarian principles that made America famous are on gaudy and gorgeous display. In the multiracial swarm of the place there are aspects of mystery and promise and excitement. Also, there are aspects of chaos and danger. As noted, this is America.

By now, word has been sent forth by travel agencies around the world: Considering a trip to Miami? Be careful. Be very careful. Five times since last autumn, tourists from abroad have been killed in or around the city and four other foreign guests were slain elsewhere in Florida. Twice in the last six months, German motorists were shot to death after leaving the Miami airport. Most recently, a British fellow was murdered at a rest stop near Tallahassee. His travelling companion, also from overseas, was wounded but survived the attack. In her frantic attempt to summon help, the woman told an emergency operator: “He’s dying, he’s really dying.”

The visitor’s melancholy phrasing and tone of astonishment only added to the horror of the event. Yes, her friend was actually going to die there at the roadside in Florida. He was going to die far away from home and for reasons that no one ever would be able to satisfactorily explain. How amazing and how sad. Frazzled state officials promptly condemned the shooting and expressed dismay that the Sunshine State again was cast in shadow. They promised better security in public places and quickly cancelled a worldwide tourism campaign with the theme, “One Florida, Many Faces.”

For now at least, it can be assumed that Florida shows only one face to potential travellers—the terrifying profile of an assailant

Fred Bruning is a writer with Newsday in New York.

preparing to shoot the visitor dead. State Commerce Secretary Greg Farmer observed: ‘To be running ads saying, ‘Everything is wonderful, come on down,’ only highlights the problem and is counterproductive.” Already, Farmer said, the state could lose billions of tourist bucks. Better squelch those slick sand-and-sea promotions so as not to offend the hearty sojourners still planning to show up.

And yet one cannot help wonder when the situation in Florida will be much different— when it will be possible to guarantee foreign visitors, or American travellers, safe passage? After the Tallahassee shooting, Gov. Lawton Chiles vowed, “We are not going to tolerate these kinds of offences,” but no amount of brave political posturing is going to stop disaffected Americans from drifting into what The Wall Street Journal describes as our “new criminal culture.” The intractable forces of alienation at work have little connection to the effete world of state-house dinners and blueribbon commissions. Whether the governor “tolerates,” or whether he does not, trouble will continue until we make the trouble stop.

At this particular moment, the United States is on a violence jag. Guns are every-

where, thanks in large part to the visionaries at the National Rifle Association and to lax weapons laws like those on the books in Florida. Drug abuse and trafficking assure a ghastly level of casual killing. A generation of neighborhood kids are ducking bullets from drive-by shootings and struggling to “just say no” as pushers cultivate the next generation of junkies. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry Cisneros foresees a “Clockwork Orange” sort of society populated by contemptuous kids with barely a notion of what it means physically—or metaphysically—to take a life. Jobs, homes, investment in the inner city would offer hope to the hopeless, says Cisneros, and help make America’s streets safer, and its highway rest stops, too. Anybody listening?

Stupidity has a hammerlock on the American esthetic. Porno-violence is a growth industry aimed at the young. Such is consumer interest in an electronic arcade game called Mortal Kombat that its New York City manufacturer had to establish a national reservations system upon releasing a home video version. Why so popular? Kids dig the realistic Kombat graphics—warriors impaling their adversaries on spikes, tearing out hearts, snapping off heads (spinal cord still dangling, a nice touch), or frying enemies by means of electrocution. Just a little diversion for a rainy afternoon.

Who pays most dearly for our excesses? We do. Every lost life of a visitor is tragic, but can we get a grip on reality, please? More than 40 million people toured Florida last year and only one-tenth of one per cent were victimized by crime. Intense media focus on the assault of foreigners obscures the despair of urban Americans, and in the process devalues their lives. We should mourn the deaths of overseas travellers, to be sure, but what about the U.S. citizens whose sad stories do not appear on the front page? Florida’s murder rate—10.7 per 100,000 population, according to 1990 FBI figures—mostly afflicts Floridians. Same thing goes in New York City, where the rate is 14.5, and Washington, which scores a horrifying 77.8 murders per 100,000. While lamenting the foreign victims of random violence, we also might send regrets to ourselves.

So what’s the lesson? Should Americans hunker down for the duration? Must we abandon our cities and the people within—just say, “the hell with it” and look the other way? Do we yank advertising and effectively tell overseas travellers to stay home if they value their lives? Or do we say, “Hold on, Jake, we’re not running from this thing”? Do we apply political pressure for reforms that recognize the link between despair and dysfunction? Do we keep things in perspective and remind one another that, bad as things are, America is not yet an armed camp? Citizens are not exactly running wild in the streets nor are ordinary folks lugging bazookas to work. Cities like Miami, New York City and Washington remain far more civilized than depraved. The same can be said for most Americans. Don’t believe it? Pack that bag. Check us out.