U.S. murder rate doesn't look good in tourist literature


September 20, 1993|By MIKE LITTWIN

We're embarrassed, aren't we? We're so embarrassed we don't know quite what to say.

That's the answer to an ugly little question being asked a lot these days: Why do we get into such an uproar every time some foreigner gets plunked in Florida when scores of actual Americans are being murdered nationwide every day, virtually without notice?

We're embarrassed, all right.

In America, we are very serious about how wonderful it is to be an American. This is the country where it is, well, un-American to suggest that the U.S.A. is not in every way the best darn place on God's green earth.

But when some European gets killed here, the press over there goes a little nuts, talking about how we're nothing more than a bunch of armed-to-the-teeth barbarians, loosing Rambo-like violence on ourselves and anyone else unfortunate enough to cross our path.

That kind of thing can get to you. And we get sick of hearing about how our murder rate is 10 times higher than Sweden's or some other country whose population has all the diversity of your typical country club.

But here's a statistic that won't go away: Our national (not inner-city) murder rate is twice that of Northern Ireland, which is smack in the middle of a civil war and has rival terrorist groups on every street corner.

What kind of country are we?

You know part of the answer. We're the country with three murders and 200 violent crimes committed every hour, and we wish nobody ever mentioned it. Certainly, we try not to.

We get reminded in a very big way, though, when Uwe-Wilhelm and Kathrin Rakebrand come to visit violent Miami from a tiny German village, complete with shepherds patrolling the hillsides, and Uwe-Wilhelm makes the return trip in a coffin.

The murder itself would have been almost comic had it not been so tragic. The German couple was riding in a rental car, supplied with a booklet describing how to avoid being attacked in your car while driving in America. Can you imagine that such a book even exists?

Anyway, they were riding along on the highway when they get bumped from behind by a van. The woman went for the pamphlet. You can almost see her scanning the table of contents for the chapter on what to do when some crazy American slams into the back of your car. The book says to keep driving.

They did. But the strategy didn't work. According to the police story, the van pulled up alongside their car, at which time somebody pointed a sawed-off hunting rifle and blew Uwe-Wilhelm away.

The alleged murderer apparently fired because she was angry that the driver wouldn't stop. That's how much a life is worth.

Something like that happens pretty much every day in Dade County, where there were 373 murders last year. We know about that in Baltimore, where there were 335 last year.

The next big Florida killing took place far from Miami, however, up near relatively peaceful Tallahassee. In this one, the victim, who was from Great Britain, had been in his car with his wife taking a nap at an interstate highway rest stop when he was killed by two youths.

Two teens approached the car, which was in a well-lighted area,knocked on the windows and demanded money. The couple tried to back their car out and the youths began firing.

One of the suspects in the case has been arrested 56 times. He's 13. That's no misprint. He's 13 years old and already has 56 arrests on his record.

In response, Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles has beefed up security on the highways, and there are now armed police at the rest stops. That's right. You pull into a Florida rest stop these days to find armed police there to ensure your safety.

In Florida, they are especially concerned about the foreign reaction. Nine foreigners have been killed in the state this year, prompting the head of Disney to suggest the state consider looking into stricter gun control. You know why. Seven million foreigners visit Florida every year. The state has a $31 billion tourist industry, which is jeopardized with each new report. Already, there has been a steady flow of cancellations.

Sure, that's a problem. But it's not the big problem. The big problem cannot be measured in terms of tourist dollars lost or how we might look to people in Germany.

No, the big problem is how we look to ourselves.

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