When the world is watching

Elmer Smith

September 16, 1993|By Elmer Smith

Philadelphia -- SOMETIME soon, perhaps by the time you read this, Florida authorities will haul in the three lowlifes who murdered an English tourist at a roadside rest stop Tuesday.

I figure they'll be taking their meals off metal trays in a state-run chow line this time next week. Actually, I'm almost certain of it. Because to let them run loose much longer would be very bad for business.

Florida is in the tourist business to the tune of $31 billion a year. About 40 million visitors come to see Mickey and Minnie and Shamu annually. Almost all of them make it back home.

But in the past year or so, nine foreign tourists have been $H murdered in Florida.

Gary Colley of Yorkshire, England, is the latest.

Mr. Colley and his companion, Margaret Ann Jagger, were shot attempting to escape from a rest stop where they were accosted by gunmen. Mr. Colley is dead. Ms. Jagger is in serious condition.

A week earlier, a German tourist named Uwe-Wilhelm Rakebrand was shot and killed in a bump-and-rob near Miami.

Within three days, Florida police acting on telephone tips located the three suspects in that case.

And this time Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles is getting really serious. He has reassigned 150-500 armed state employees -- including game wardens, agriculture in spectors and auxiliary highway patrolmen -- to patrol rest stops along Florida highways. He also has asked for a $4 million federal crime prevention grant. The feds turned him down once. But that was before this latest tourist turned up dead.

And to clear the books in the Colley case, Governor Chiles is offering a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the three perpetrators. So you can bet your last money their pelts will be swinging from a nail in some country sheriff's office before much longer.

It just goes to show what can be done to halt this wave of senseless killings when the whole world is watching.

Of course it doesn't work nearly as well when only the townsfolk are watching. And if only the folks in certain parts of town are watching, well, it doesn't seem to work at all.

I used to think this stark difference had something to do with the victim's race or economic strata.

But the Florida cases show that what minorities and poor people haven't learned yet is to make a direct correlation between loss of life and loss of revenue.

Because it is not, as I previously thought, that some people's lives are worth more than others; it is that some people's deaths cost more than others.

The figures in the Florida cases are clear. The cancellation rates for room reservations in Florida already are more than 20 percent. Balmy breezes notwithstanding, people apparently feel a Florida vacation is not to die for.

"It's going to be a catastrophe," said Greg Farmer, the Florida commerce secretary. "This is going to have a very negative impact."

How negative? Well, at $31 billion a year, a 20 percent fall off in tourism could cost the people of Florida $600 million. Once they calculate the taxes it takes to make that up, half the state will be out searching for these guys with flashlights and blackjacks.

But let's not lose the lesson in all of this: Florida families have failed to show that the deaths of their loved ones cost society something. That may be why only 43 percent of the 373 murders in Dade County last year were solved.

And it's not just Dade County or even Florida. We here in Philadelphia would love to whittle our homicide rate down to only one a day. And we'd love to bring the perpetrators to justice as fast as they did the suspects in the Rakebrand homicide.

But apparently our dead aren't worth a whole lot. A bunch of anonymous victims is not much to trade on.

We've got to start making that connection. It worked for the homeless.

They were content to camp out on steam vents and vestibules all over Center City. And the city government didn't seem to notice -- until last year. Then, along came the convention center and with it the prospect of tourist dollars flowing into Center City.

So, the mayor gave new meaning to the term down and out. He said you may be down but you must be out -- of sight.

It was almost eerie. I still don't know where they went. Some are in their winter homes west of 15th Street, south of Walnut and North of Vine. Others may be wintering in Florida, for all we know.

But they're not living directly in the flow of commerce. People from Pawtucket and Des Moines don't have to step over them to get from the convention center to waiting cabs.

It's one of those urban success stories that make you feel warm all over. You just know the government can do it if it tries.

Thing is, we've got to do our part to cause government to try harder.

It won't be easy. For the most part, our victims are lucky to have jobs.

About half of them are minors and young adults. It's just not a very inspiring lot.

But they must be worth something.

Elmer Smith is associate editor of the opinion pages at the Philadelphia Daily News.

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