The incident in Sanford, Fla., on Feb. 26, 2012, that ended in the death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin is deeply disturbing. And the recent acquittal of George Zimmerman, the man who shot and killed Martin, is also extremely disturbing.
Let me state right up front that the conduct of the trial, the reasoning of the jurors, and the verdict of not guilty may all have been (indeed, by most accounts, appears to have been) fair, appropriate, legally careful and above reproach. Because Martin is dead, because the precise sequence of actions of the event could not be definitively determined, because of Florida’s applicable laws, and because the jurors could not honestly extinguish their own “reasonable doubt,” acquittal could perhaps have been their only option. In the American system of justice, the best in the world, the standards for conviction are — correctly — extremely rigorous.
No, what disturbs me is this: A black teenager, walking openly down a sidewalk and minding his own business, got monitored, followed, hassled and eventually killed by another man who — whatever the details of the unfolding tragedy — is responsible for initiating and creating the opportunity for everything to go wrong.
What disturbs me is that Zimmerman had been told by the “real” police (Zimmerman was a volunteer “neighborhood watch” coordinator) to stop following Martin. What disturbs me is that Zimmerman — who was carrying a loaded gun — had an obligation to understand the special responsibility, and exercise the burden of prudence, that is incumbent upon a person armed with a weapon that can end someone’s life.
I am troubled that black kids — sometimes solely because they are black — are too often stopped and questioned. And it is really difficult to accept that ordinary citizens like George Zimmerman can become neighborhood “watchers” and think that they have a license to intervene in the activities of people who are doing nothing wrong.
Again, we don’t know what happened that rainy night. It appears that Zimmerman and Martin ended up in a fight, and that Zimmerman was at least punched. His nose and back of the head sustained some damage. Did he feel that his life was in danger? We can’t know for sure.
The incident also illuminates another troubling reality — Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law. This law permits a person to defend himself with deadly force if he feels threatened — even if he has a clear avenue to flee to safely escape. Traditionally, to avoid killing someone, a threatened person had a duty to retreat from the scene if he could safely do so. Today, though, about 30 states have passed laws that allow threatened people to choose to stay and fight.
I believe that those laws increase the likelihood that potentially violent — and simultaneously potentially avoidable — encounters will escalate into actual conflicts. Furthermore, the laws can have the effect on the people who feel threatened of turning them into judge, jury and executioner.
Stand-your-ground laws seem needlessly hostile and aggressive. They would take the misjudgment and dysfunction of one member of society (the person making the initial threat, or perceived threat) and potentially multiply it by two when the person who feels threatened decides to stick around and react with some type of aggression or force. Remember, as in the Trayvon Martin incident, once two people engage each other in conflict, anything can happen. Anybody — innocent or guilty — can be killed. That is one of the reasons why, for so long, the requirement to flee or disengage has been among the marks of civilized societies.
In lawless societies, every individual is at risk, and every individual must defend himself — or somehow procure his own safety. But as societies develop and become civilized, men agree to put away their weapons, abide by laws, establish professional police forces and seek justice or retribution through orderly judicial systems.
Sometimes, Americans seem to forget what a difficult and amazing accomplishment it is to have created this orderly republic — with its delicate balance between personal liberty and justice for all. But just look at the persistent struggles to create democracy, balances, and progressive, tolerant societies in Egypt, Syria, Turkey, Iraq and Lebanon, and you’ll be reminded just how difficult indeed is this business of becoming “civilized”. Today, parts of Syria, Egypt, Niger, Mali and Sudan illustrate the extremes of stand-your-ground societies. Chaos is the logical conclusion of the erosion of order, tolerance, justice, social contracts and reliance on law.
Even though Zimmerman’s acquittal seems legally correct, I remain deeply troubled by what this single incident exposes. Our country has a lot more work ahead of it as we debate exactly what laws are appropriate, and as we continue to pursue a wise balance among freedom, personal liberty, safety, justice, prosperity and opportunity — at both individual and collective levels.
Brian T. Watson is a Salem News columnist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.