Murders happen everywhere people live. No country is spared. For those left behind, a murder is a tragedy and one that remains in their memories for a lifetime. The reality is most murders are domestic affairs. They often occur in the country where the killer and victim were born, educated, worked, and played. The killer and victim often shared in a common culture and language. They likely watched the same TV shows and movies. They recognized the same celebrities who outside that culture moved anonymously among others who did not recognize them. In other words, they consider themselves as belonging to the same ‘tribe.’
When the murder victim dies violently in a foreign place and the killer or killers are natives to that foreign land, the killing ignites the interest of the media. Ever since Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice we have the suspicion that someone murdered in a foreign country is something we ought to pay special attention to the tribal affiliations of the victim and killer. Though, in Death in Venice the killer was cholera, and not someone with a knife or gun. The point is death on holiday attracts attention.
First, we all take or dream of taking holidays to foreign lands. The attraction of such a holiday is to sit on a pristine white sand beach with tall drink with one of those little umbrellas. This is a time to sit back and relax, enjoy the breeze off the sea. If someone just like you—a respectable, hardworking middle-class person—opens a newspaper and reads about someone who resembles the details of your own life who was found with a knife in his back, you take that death more personally. That could have been you on the beach in France, Italy, Greece, Thailand or India. The kind of places you may have been to or intend to visit.
Second, like Mann’s Death in Venice foretells, the police and government officials in countries, which promote the ‘tourist dream holiday’ may be less than forthcoming when a foreigner is violently assaulted or killed. Such governments have a conflict of interest. They wish to be seen as a country that administers a system of criminal justice that is worthy of respect internationally. No country’s police force or judicial system is happy to suddenly have an international spotlight placed on an investigation into the death or severe beating of a foreigner. The relevant embassy makes phone calls to important officials, the victim’s relatives and local MPs to make certain that the embassy follows up on request for information and evidence. Journalists from the victim’s country show up and ask questions. Internet social sites buzz with fear and loathing.
In May, tourists arrivals were up 66% compared with a year ago, and Thailand has the greatest gain in tourists of any country in Southeast Asia. John Koldowski, PATA’s managing director of strategic intelligence said, “In May, more than 1.3 million foreign tourists visited the kingdom, compared with 826,000 a year ago.”
It all threatens to go slightly out of control. Not to mention that the government of the place where the murder takes place has other worries. Their officials (like in Death in Venice) worry about a dip in the tourist numbers and the impact that would have on jobs, hotel vacancies, along with the general knock on effect as less revenue circulates in the holiday centers. Tourist centers are full of voters. The heat from abroad is hot but never so hot as the blast of heat that comes from disgruntled voters.
I raise the issue as resort centers such as Pattaya and Phuket have recently been in the news for locales where foreigners have been mugged, raped, assaulted or murdered. The foreign press doesn’t always distinguish between the case of the tourists and expats. Perhaps they shouldn’t. Though a case can be made that an expat who lives in another country (as opposed to someone visiting on a short holiday) ought to have better information and more experience with local people, customs, and culture and are able to steer clear of trouble with greater ease. Anyone who has known a cross-section of expats will find a number who go out of their way to expose themselves to risk of assault or murder because of their own involvement in criminal activity. In such a case, the heat dies down as the murder victim tumbles from the innocent mirror image of you going on that holiday to Thailand to someone likely involved in criminal activity. Of course tourists get themselves into trouble, too.
A local newspaper in Phuket reported the death of a Russian with Swedish nationality whose throat had been cut in front of his luxury condo, provides a roundup of recent murders of foreigners:
“On March 15, Phuket and Phi Phi resident Italian Luciano Butti was allegedly murdered by Thais at the behest of his partner, Denis Cavatassi, who is now in Phuket Prison awaiting trial.
”On August 14 last year, Englishman Lee Aldhouse allegedly knifed to death American Dashawn Longfellow in southern Phuket. Aldhouse is currently being held in Britain, awaiting the outcome of an extradition hearing.
”A Thai man who killed German expat resident Wolf-Dieter Kesselheim outside a 7-Eleven store on January 27 last year was caught and tried and sentenced to 13 years and four months jail on December 16.
”The previous year, a Canadian property developer was shot dead outside his Phuket house and a Scotsman was battered to death in his Phuket City apartment in the same week.”
The pressure of bad publicity is deflected when the suspected killers are themselves foreigners. There’s evidence that Swedish man killed in Phuket on Monday was murdered by two Swedish nationals who have been arrested by the authorities in connection with the killing, according to news accounts.
In other words, if someone is killed in an exotic land by someone from their own country, it has a different emotional impact on potential tourists considering their holiday plans It seems that the real fear isn’t just being murdered by being killed by a foreigner in a distant land. Being killed by your own citizen seems business as usual. Being killed by someone else’s nationals, well, that is bad for business. Especially if they are locals as these are the happy people in the travel brochure who convinced you that this holiday location was an ideal place to relax (as opposed to getting yourself killed). Why we mentally categories the killings on whether they are within the tribe or by someone outside the tribe is one of those evolutionary questions scientist may figure out one day. Until then, tourists continue to have a greater reaction and feel more fear when the killing of a foreigner, especially a tourist, in a foreign land by a local.
The tragedies that governments are more likely to avoid calling attention to often involve issues of lack of training, inattentiveness, shoddy maintenance, lax health standards, lack of control on how food or domestic animals are brought to market, and generally reckless behavior. These categories cover the ferryboats that sink, the planes that crash, the trains that derail, car crashes, epidemics, virus infections, extreme weather and pollution related diseases.
Unlike a murder, death from these non-murder type causes also make the headlines around the world and, if the scale is sufficient, will also disturb the tourism business. When the tsunami struck Thailand in 2005 thousands of people were killed. Thousands of foreign tourists were killed by that tsunami but the tourism business did not spend years in decline as a consequence.
The reason the tsunami, far more powerful and damaging, than an isolated murder, is less disruptive is simple. Foreigners don’t blame the locals for the death of their loved ones, especially if as a result of natural disasters. If anything, the foreigners felt admiration for the efforts launched by the Thai government to recover bodies, inform loved ones, and provide information and comfort to the survivors. But one murder is enough to cause a potential tourist to sit back and have that moment of doubt.
Should I change that trip to Thailand or Mexico or Sri Lanka because I read a tourist was shot and the police and government don’t seem all that keen on doing anything about it? What hardly matters is whether the police or local officials are working around the clock on the case, it is the perception that someone from their country has been murdered and the police haven’t arrested anyone.
Putting international pressure on local police in exotic location can also backfire. They pick out a scapegoat and pin the murder on him or her. The suspect is videoed re-enacting the crime. It all looks so real. But real or not, it will have the desired effect—it reassures the foreigners about the efficiency and diligence of the authorities to deal with such cases. That gives a feeling of deterrence, and that is enough to erase that tiny bit of doubt about your holiday plans. What is good for your psyche isn’t necessarily good for the poor cut out who is frog marched off to prison.
Next time you read about a tourist murdered in a remote, exotic place, ask yourself not whether I should cancel my holiday to that place but whether, on balance, I am genuinely at any greater risk of being murdered on holiday than I am in being killed in a car crash on the way to the airport. If you do the math, in most places the most dangerous part of your holiday will be on the road to and from your airport. Also, if you run the math on the relationship between murder victim and killer, in the majority of cases they know each other. They are members of the same tribe. On that next holiday, it would be wise to watch the road to the airport carefully, and when you check into that hotel in an exotic land, keep an eye on members of your fellow tribe. Because statistically that’s where your greatest danger of being murdered lies.