The other day, a story exploded all over the media that was a long time in the making, details percolating with slow deliberation until their impact could be felt across the Atlantic. The story isn't exactly news anymore, but it's being picked up enthusiastically here in Europe because it seems to corroborate commonly held stereotypes about the US. It's a story about gratuitous violence, loose guns and the position of minorities.
The story I'm referring to is the killing of Trayvon Martin, a kid on his way home from the store, by George Zimmerman, a volunteer vigilante who had a queasy feeling about him and took the law into his own hands. The kid is dead, but the man is free. He was never even taken in for questioning by the police. The reason: He claimed self-defense.
Wikipedia tells me that self-defense is "a legal justification for the use of force in times of danger". In the case of Trayvon Martin's killing, has the existence of any kind of danger prior to the killing been established? What is the evidence? Is it just in the words of the perpetrator? Shouldn't there be a clear threat before self-defense can become legitimate? How can a perceived threat be sufficient? Couldn't then just anyone go and kill a person – only to claim self-defense afterwards and walk free? Has, in the light of the expected impunity, a Self-defend against George Zimmerman-Facebook group been established already? Or one against the local police chief who let the incident pass without investigating, in what looks like an attempt of obfuscation? And if this is so, is this really what people want?
I wonder what it takes to have the claim of self-defense accepted and get out of jail free – or not into it in the first place. Do you have to carry – besides a loaded gun – the membership card of a registered armed neighborhood watch group or local militia? Do you have to call 911 in advance and inform the police of your intention to self-defend? Do you have to tell the police you have a weird, intangible apprehensive kind of feeling before tracking down and killing a kid? Is it enough you see someone suspicious out in the streets at night?
A few months before my departure to the US, the organization that provided the initial funding for the project and – more importantly, as it would turn out – opened a few doors organized a preparatory meeting where returned exchange students dispensed their wisdom to us impressionable neophytes. One girl who had spent a year in Florida warned us: "Don't walk the streets." Exploring her new home one afternoon, she had learned from a friendly neighbor that there were only two kinds of people out in the streets – the homeless and criminals. You don't want to be mistaken for either. Back then, the girl didn't tell us about the potential consequences, and all we did was chuckle about the American obsession with driving.
Now there are more sinister connotations to that bit of advice, and I’m not chuckling anymore but considering the potential ramifications. With self-defense as a legal catch-all, is there room left in the book of law for murder and manslaughter or have the relevant pages been removed? Who defends those who don’t self-defend? Is it perhaps every American’s patriotic duty to self-defend?
By analogy, are there in Florida provisions like self-defense in other kinds of disputes, provisions where the word of one party is all that matters? If you steal a brand new Silverado off a dealer's lot, will the police believe your claim that the truck is lawfully yours? Wouldn't it be their job to investigate? Why haven't they done this in the case at hand? The police, by claim of the city manager, were "prohibited from making an arrest based on the facts and circumstances they had at the time". How is this possible?
Pervasive institutional racism is mentioned in all articles I've read as a compounding or maybe even causative factor in the incident. I'd like to disregard that in this post, even though George Zimmerman is a name that would make any white supremacists turn light brown with envy. I'd like to ask instead: How do people who aren't racist square what has happened with how a free and equitable society should work? Where is the response of the silent majority – of those that wouldn't go for a walk in Florida but wouldn't track down and kill a kid that does, either.
The previous paragraph would have been a powerful way of ending this post, had I already made up my mind and decided to accuse. But I haven't. I'm utterly confused. Did the tragedy come about because of disregard for or misinterpretation of the law by a few? Can the cause be found in the passing of blatantly idiotic laws by lawmakers elected by many? Or is it all a misunderstanding blown out of proportion by scandal-hungry media? Please enlighten me.