A better body bag

May 19, 1993

A search through this newspaper's computerized librar reveals the use of the word "murder" in the paper 5,382 times since September 1990 (when the system went on line.) That's at least six times every day. (By comparison, the word "Schaefer" showed up 4,397 and "Schmoke" 2,379). Add to that all the TV newscasts, the docudramas and movies which describe, depict and dissect, day in, day out, humankind's brutalities against one another and the results can be, understandably, quite numbing.

But slow the staccato-paced action -- in fact, stop it. And don't just describe the gore, but show it -- in the low-tech, yet enduring form of still photography -- and outrage will be heard far and wide.

At least a half-dozen readers called this newspaper's ombudsman to complain about a picture published May 4 that showed a young policeman standing over the body of Baltimore's 112th homicide victim this year. The body was covered by a sheet, but the arm was visible; so was a trickle of blood running onto the sidewalk.

Some readers -- undoubtedly more than just those who were moved to call -- apparently found the photograph by staffer Michael Lutzky disturbing and inappropriate; others, including the editors who selected it, found it poignant and telling.

One reader who has seen scores of bloody bodies but was disturbed by the shot just the same was Baltimore's Police Commissioner Edward V. Woods, who urged his staff to accelerate a solution to a problem he'd sought months before. He wanted a body bag to better shield homicide victims while the initial stages of a murder scene investigation are completed.

Some might criticize the commissioner's energies as misdirected. This city is aching for a better way to halt crime, not cover its effects. But the commissioner seemed to have his heart in the right place, hoping to shield dead bodies from children. Just because many in the inner city must live with fear and drugs and gunplay every day doesn't diminish the value of small, inexpensive symbolism to show that death deserves dignity, and that life, by extension, must be worth something. If black plastic draped over a steel frame helps express this, that's good.

Of course, one might also wonder if a single photo showing an uncovered body part and some blood could so energize the police commissioner and the citizenry, and shake the political inertia that tacitly allows the crime and urban blight, maybe such images should run a little more often.

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