Friday, July 19, 2013

Thoughts About Reactions to the Zimmerman/Martin Case

Both media and social media have been lighting up with responses to the not guilty verdict returned in the George Zimmerman case. As usual, I'm far more interested in the reactions than in the verdict itself. As I wrote some time ago, Zimmerman will suffer for the rest of his life for shooting Trayvon Martin, whatever the courts do or don't do. The fate of Zimmerman the man is his concern; it's what the rest of us do in response that interests me more.

Obviously, I can't possibly be comprehensive - everybody's got an opinion on this case, or as one popular internet meme had it:

That's a fair point - most of us aren't lawyers. On the other hand, most of us interested in this case are American citizens, and as I understand citizenship it is not only our right but our duty to consider how things like the legal system should or shouldn't work, and to express those views - not that we always get our way or agree with each other, but the conversation is important.

As I look over the various responses, I see some on both the right and the left that strike me as misguided. The very fact that this has become a "Left/Right" issue strikes me as wrong, and is a strong indicator of the pernicious effect of party tribalism in American public life (links too many to mention; just look for all most posts with the "tribalism" label...)

On the right, there are some folks who seem desperate to make the point that the Zimmerman/Martin incident was "not about race." Here's a Facebook message typical of the genre:

Before you judge, those of you who know me, know I have a biracial son and am probably the LEAST prejudice person you'll ever meet. This is about principles, not about color. I just read all of the notes on the Zimmerman case (I don't watch the news to avoid crap like this, so I googled it) and I don't see how this is a racial issue.
 People keep referring to Zimmerman as a "white man", he is Latino...hello? The kid (black white blue purple or green) was suspended from school and wandering around an obviously high crime neighborhood in the rain, high as a kite and when someone questions that, he punches him, knocks him down and proceeds to beat his head against the ground.
 I strongly suggest kids behave so they are in school when they should be, stay away from drugs and certainly not pick a fist fight with a man exercising his right to carry a weapon to defend his life. Sorry kid, I don't care what color you are, you picked a fight with the wrong guy...I would have shot someone who was beating on me too. Thank you Sharpton, Jackson and for the love of GOD Obama (cringe) for hopping on the racist bandwagon. People are killed every day...of all races, religious origins, and ages. Where are Sharpton and Jackson at when it's black on black or white on white or black on white crime? These idiot loudmouths should make this much noise in every murder case, but I truly believe they are the ones who keep racism alive and well...and Obama jumping on the bandwagon reinforces my belief that he is a complete waste of space, time and air. I shall now hop down off of my soap box and pray for peace in the world between all people. We need to start living together as a HUMAN peace. What the hell is so tough about that concept???
To acquit Zimmerman of racism and simultaneously accuse Sharpton, Jackson & Obama of it in the same breath seems a little confusing to me. Is this about race or isn't it? The fact that some people seem to want it very much to NOT be about race (and who simultaneously assume that Martin was the aggressor...) says that it is just as much as the NAACP's statements (they clearly have a different perspective on this question). The fact is that things aren't "about race" or "not about race" in and of themselves; they are judged so by people with different perspectives. The Zimmerman case is a Rorshach test - people see in it what they bring with them. But the fact that a lot of people think that race matters here means that it does, however much some conservatives wish that it doesn't. Sorry, but that's the way it is.

There has also been a bit of crowing from the "guns are good for self defense" crowd on the right. It's one thing to project your agenda onto a very specific set of events (which most of us do); it's another to reedit those events to fit your agenda. As I've mentioned before, Zimmerman's life is ruined because of the gun he carried. Would Trayvon Martin, unarmed and empty-handed, have killed Zimmerman except for that shot? That seems a stretch. Hurt him, perhaps. But death? Highly unlikely. So those who would cry "better to be tried by twelve than carried by six" need to find a different poster child. If anything, this is an indication of something I've argued many times before: guns are terrible in most circumstances for self-defense. Perhaps the NRA should ask George Zimmerman how safe he feels today...

On the left, there are certainly many who are disappointed in the verdict - though given the evidence that was publicly available, I'm not sure why folks were surprised. Some of those most disappointed have made the argument, in varying ways, that this verdict shows how broken the legal system is. This, too, is misguided. Assuming that the jury saw what the rest of us saw - and in a trial this closely followed, that's a reasonable approximation - it's hard to make a case that a reasonable person would believe in Zimmerman's guilt for the crimes of which he was accused beyond a reasonable doubt. That's our legal standard, and it's become the gold standard of the world. You can argue with the prosecution's tactics, but in the end the evidence just wasn't there - too much ambiguity, too much contradiction, too much simply unknown.

If there's any accusation to be made of the legal system, it is inflexibility. The jury could only consider Zimmerman's guilt or innocence on the charges filed - murder and manslaughter. On these, it was hard to reach a definitive conclusion, and in our system the defense wins ties. Many reasonable people think Zimmerman did something wrong - disobeying the police instruction to not follow or make contact with Martin, for example. But in our system, neither judge nor jury can consider such things. We can argue about whether that might be reconsidered, but that's a tweak, not a fundamental flaw. In fact, it's very difficult - if not impossible - to argue on the basis of any single case that there is a systematic problem. Systems will always make mistakes (Rodney King, OJ?) And it isn't even clear in this case that it did.

This is also not to say that the law itself should not be called into question. Some have pointed out that the "stand your ground" portion of Florida's law isn't really the issue here, since at the one point of the altercation actually witnessed by someone else, Zimmerman could not have retreated. But there is the very real issue of whether you can claim self-defense if you initiated the altercation in the first place. In a number of jurisdictions, the answer to this is "no", but it's ambiguous and requires judgment on the part of a judge and/or jury - and evidence on which to base that judgment. Trying to figure out who started a fight can be a very tricky thing - is it the person who threw the first punch? Who hurled the first insult? Who first drew a weapon? Using the Zimmerman case by itself to try to define what the law should be is almost certainly a bad idea. We need a serious national conversation about the use of force and the rights of self-defense - something we seem incapable of having right now.

Ultimately, the altercation between Zimmerman and Martin is a tragedy, in the classic literary sense. Both men were human beings, with faults and foibles which may or may not have been involved in this particular incident. Was Zimmerman racially profiling Martin, or profiling him on class or something else? Was Martin's past drug use relevant? What we can say, which I think nearly everyone would agree, is this: a man died needlessly. In a better world, much less a perfect one, this would not have happened. But then as an Episcopal Bishop pointed out, in a better world Zimmerman would have offered Martin a ride to get out of the rain.

The nature of this particular tragedy illustrates a point that people in my academic field (international politics) have understood for a very long time: there is no "better safe than sorry". We call this the "security dilemma": the difficulty in dealing with an Other with unknown motives. If I deal kindly or reasonably with someone who intends me harm, I am wrong and I will get hurt (Chamberlain, Munich, 1938). But if I deal aggressively with someone who means me no harm, thinking that they do, I will cause the very conflict I wish to avoid (Europe, 1914). This is what the "tried by twelve/carried by six" crowd doesn't understand - there is no "safe" pathway. Thinking otherwise - thinking "I have a gun, so I can safely assume that he's up to no good" - is not a path to either peace or security. It's the road to tragedy.

At the international level, this is difficult to resolve because knowing the motives of another country is well-nigh impossible. On the interpersonal level, it should be much easier - because I can talk to someone and get some reading on them and see what they say and do. If I do so without bias - if I allow from the very beginning for the fact that the other person may, in fact, be innocent and mean me no harm - I have a better-than-random chance of getting it right. If I engage that conversation assuming I know what the answer is, of course, I will only see what I expect to see - which is the deeper point beneath the political bumper stickers about "racial profiling".

This brings up perhaps the root of the entire tragedy: fear. Zimmerman was clearly afraid - for himself (why else carry a gun?) and for his neighborhood (why else be such a zealous neighborhood watchman?) It is likely - not provable, but likely - that his fear clouded his judgment, clouded how he saw Martin and how he chose to engage with him. And that fear led to tragedy.

The answer, which we mostly don't want to hear, is therefore simple: don't be afraid. Be wary and watchful and cautious, yes - all of these can be reasonable responses to circumstances. But if we truly want peace and justice in our communities, we must conquer our fear. Or, as has been put more wisely than I can by both philosophers and movies:

And, with a tip of the hat to my friend Steve Saideman:


  1. No citation of Yoda's classic statement on the matter? Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering.

    That or FDR's "we have nothing to fear but fear itself."

    Nice post.

  2. Brilliant, incisive analysis as always.