Saturday, April 28, 2012

Seeing It Like a Native

She is the femme fatale of American cities, enticing with her glitz, seducing with her beauty, betraying with her violence.

I moved to Miami in 1985, as the city emerged from adolescence.  She had always been beautiful, a blend of pristine white sand and perpetual green enhanced by the translucent blue of her waters.  As a child vacationing with my family, I would stand on her shores and look to where sky met ocean as the sun’s rays warmed my shoulders.  I could not imagine a more peaceful place.


The city was undergoing a transformation.  Miami Vice was in its second season, creating an image of glamour and excitement which did not necessarily reflect reality.  Miami was still young, years from attaining the reputation she now holds as the ultimate party town, enticing revelers from around the globe.  South Beach was beginning to attract film crews, models and photo shoots, which competed for sidewalk space with a dissipating population of retirees outside deteriorating Art Deco hotels.  While her spotty past included trysts with politicos and gangsters (as depicted in 1974’s The Godfather: Part II and the current Starz TV series, Magic City), Miami seemed somehow uncomfortable with her image, clinging wistfully to her small-town past and refusing to become post-Castro Havana.

All changed in the waning years of the 1980’s.  As more and more people visited South Florida, seeking the world inhabited by Tubbs and Crockett, perception became fact.  Towering glass office buildings burst from the sands, creating a real downtown and a memorable skyline visible from the waters.  South Beach was reborn, long neglected Art Deco structures renovated and invaded by beautiful people doing questionable, yet exciting things.  Celebrity, not beauty, became the city’s defining feature.  Miami was an eclectic mix of ethnicity, excitement and extremes, home to jubilant crowds who turned night into day, partying through the dark hours.

Yet it has been said that nothing good happens after 3:00 A.M., and Miami felt the impact of her new nocturnal life.  Street crime increased, ethnic tensions heightened, and what was once a tranquil existence gave way to tourist killings, police overreaction and racial riots.  Miami had hit the big time, now mentioned with New York and Los Angeles amongst the most dangerous of American cities.


It is precisely this mix of beauty, glitz and violence that continues to attract writers, filmmakers and TV producers to Miami.  It is here that Showtime’s Dexter tracks down serial killers, disposing of them in unique and creative ways.  It is also here that William Hurt was seduced by passion in 1981’s Body Heat, and where Will Smith and Martin Lawrence brought their own brand of violent justice to the streets in the Bad Boys films.

Above all else, Miami has become a writers’ haven, with thriller authors such as Carl Hiaasen, Les Standiford, Paul Levine and Tom Corcoran embellishing city streets with intrigue and corpses.

Perhaps the best writer of Miami crime stories is James W. Hall, the author of eighteen novels, all set in Miami and the Florida Keys.  Most of Hall’s tales feature his principal character, Thorn, a non-conformist and recluse, who yearns for the days when life was simpler, yet consistently finds himself enveloped in violence.  Hall’s latest, Dead Last (2011), brings Thorn to Miami, where he confronts the remnants of his past while investigating killings that mimic a less-than-popular TV show.  Dead Last is not Hall’s best work, but is nevertheless entertaining, and at times eye-opening.  One passage in the novel, which describes Thorn’s feelings about modern-day Miami is particularly poignant:

Working on the front lines of commerce in Miami could be risky.  The truce that kept chance encounters from erupting into bloodshed was fragile.  You didn’t joke about violence in public places, just as you didn’t kid about bombs at airport security checkpoints.  The new gun-friendly law was called Stand Your Ground.  Florida’s citizens had the state’s permission to use deadly force against anyone they considered a threat to their safety.  With so many people standing their ground, Miami had become a hair-trigger society.  Determining which threats qualified as worthy of lethal response was the new survival skill.  The rule was “Be nice or die.”  In fact, be very nice, or very quick on the draw.


I read this passage as stories of Trayvon Martin dominated national headlines.  Martin was a black teen fatally shot on February 26, 2012 by a community watch coordinator in Sanford, about four hours north of Miami.  Much has been speculated and debated about what happened the night of Martin’s killing, what led George Zimmerman to gun down an unarmed teen walking at night to the home of his father’s fiancĂ©e in a gated Central Florida community.

My initial reaction when I read the news was to wonder why it was necessary for Zimmerman to carry a concealed weapon.  What is it about our society that makes its citizens feel the need to carry loaded guns?  And why do we, as a society, allow it?

The reality is that Trayvon Martin’s story would have been quite different had George Zimmerman not been carrying a gun that night.  Guns have the ability to take confrontations and elevate them into tragedies, and that is precisely what occurred here.

Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law has been scrutinized since Martin’s killing.  Pressure is mounting on Florida lawmakers to modify or revoke the law, something that would come much too late for Trayvon Martin, but which may help avoid future tragedies.

The debate over “Stand Your Ground” has become increasingly political, with gun control advocates squaring off against those who support the right to bear arms.  I suspect that, in the end, little will be done and “Stand Your Ground” will remain on Florida’s books.

After all, why ruin a good story? 

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