I didn’t obsessively follow the George Zimmerman trial, and even tried to ignore the incessant cheerleading on the Right for the defendant—certainly a rare positioning for most of these birds if you ignore the race of the two parties in the case. When the judge agreed to charge the jury that manslaughter was a lesser included offense in the charge, I figured that’s the way the wind was blowing, since the murky circumstances of what exactly was going on when Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin made a murder conviction unlikely. The shock of the total acquittal is that it’s means that Zimmerman is free not only from imprisonment, but free to resume his habit of driving around with a gun under his seat looking to play cop or super-hero. Trayvon Martin, meanwhile, is still dead, and still guilty, according to the same murky evidence, of nothing more than defending himself when stalked and then challenged by a total stranger under no legal obligation to disclose he was carrying a lethal weapon.
I’d be skeptical about a civil rights prosecution in this case; such prosecutions rarely succeed without extensive evidence of explicit racism on the party of the indicted party. About the only silver lining here from the point of view of those seeking a modicum of justice for Martin is that the threat of a civil suit—with its less demanding burden-of-proof—should be enough to deter Zimmerman from what Charles Pierce calls “the victory tour on Fox” and “the inevitable book deal.”
But the more I think about it, the real aberration in law and society that’s been exposed by this case involves the incentives offered to Zimmerman and people like him—not just in Sanford, Florida, but in much of the country. At TAP, Scott Lemieux nails it:
Carrying a deadly weapon in public should carry unique responsibilities. In most cases someone with a gun should not be able to escape culpability if he initiates a conflict with someone unarmed and the other party ends up getting shot and killed. Under the current law in many states, people threatened by armed people have few good options, because fighting back might create a license to kill. As the New Yorker’s Amy Davidson puts it, “I still don’t understand what Trayvon was supposed to do.” Unless the law is changed to deal with the large number of people carrying concealed guns, there will be more tragic and unnecessary deaths of innocent people like Trayvon Martin for which nobody is legally culpable. And to make claims of self-defense easier to bring, as Florida and more than 20 other states have done, is moving in precisely the wrong direction. And, even more importantly, no matter how self-defense laws are structured the extremely unusual American practice of allowing large number of citizens to carry concealed weapons leads to many unecessary deaths. (All 50 states, it’s worth noting, permit concealed carry.)
More generally, even as violent crime rates have steadily dropped for decades now, we’ve become a country where the state has steadily abandoned its monopoly on use of lethal force—abandoned one of the principles whereby civilization arose out of the chaos of barbarism—not only in cases where someone is defending hearth and home, but anywhere. Whether or not you believe George Zimmerman was a conscious full-time vigilante who roamed around the streets of his community looking for trouble, there is zero question our laws and practices encourage vigilantism to an extraordinary extent. We’ve bought the NRA’s bizarre argument that privatizing deadly force and then creating a universal presumption of a license to kill will make us a safer society.
Whatever you think should be George Zimmerman’s fate, just look at the man and ask yourself why on earth he should have been given a license to kill and then a ready self-defense in case he exercised it? Is America really so pathetically weak and endangered that we have to rely on the George Zimmermans of the world to protect us from the terrible specter of teenagers wearing hoodies? I would hope the question answers itself.
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