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Saturday, December 3, 2016

All of us who live in Florida struggle to explain this bizarre place to distant friends and family.

The task got somewhat easier after the 2000 presidential election, which showcased the state’s unique style of dysfunction to a vast international audience. Since then, people who live elsewhere seem not so easily mortified by anything that happens here.

Take the dreadful case of the naked cannibal.

I’d be willing to bet that in no other city but Miami would the following quote appear matter-of-factly in a crime story: “Rudy was not a face-eating zombie monster.”

Those words come from a high school friend of Rudy Eugene, who chewed the flesh off a homeless man’s face on Memorial Day weekend. Eugene first removed his own clothes and then tore off the trousers of his victim, 65-year-old Ronald Poppo.

The gruesome biting attack, reported by passers-by, took about 18 minutes. It didn’t end until Eugene was shot dead by a policeman and physically separated from the gravely injured Poppo.

All this occurred on a Saturday morning on a ramp of the MacArthur Causeway, practically within fast-break distance of the American Airlines Arena where the Miami Heat plays.

Naturally, the gory assault was captured on video by security cameras mounted on the Miami Herald building. And, naturally, it’s all over the Internet.

For a non-tabloid headline writer, the perverse facts of the crime make it almost impossible not to sensationalize. The case is grotesque even by the extreme standards of South Florida.

In my many years of working for the Herald, I can’t honestly recall anything quite so demented occurring in broad daylight at such a public location.

Numerous heinous crimes have a nude perpetrator or a nude victim, and occasionally both. At least one murder case I remember involved a grim bit of cannibalism. But the combination of nudity and cannibalism along a busy highway should be, well, shocking.

Which isn’t a word often heard when journalists who cover Miami get together and tell stories. People down here do things that are sick, warped, disgusting, twisted — but rarely shocking. Not anymore.

However, a zombie-like face-eating attack would be major news in any city. And had it happened in Des Moines or Spokane, the worldwide reaction would have been one of plain revulsion.