There is no shortage of lessons to be learned from the acquittal of George Zimmerman. Americans of conscience, however they may feel about the verdict, should examine what this says about our attitudes. Those attitudes are reflected not only in how we deal with the violence on our own streets, but also around the world.
As with any legal case, and especially one as divisive as the killing of Trayvon Martin, facts were in dispute. However, the story’s basics are agreed upon: Martin was walking back to the house he was staying at, from a store, in the same gated community Zimmerman was patrolling. Based on Martin’s appearance, Zimmerman decided that he was a suspicious character and followed him. A confrontation ensued, and Martin ended up dead. The idea that Martin, by virtue of being young, black and wearing a hoodie, was someone who could reasonably be considered suspicious has become a matter of some controversy, but seems all too natural to many Americans.
Take, for example, the Washington Post columnist, Richard Cohen, who called the killing “…a quintessentially American tragedy — the death of a young man understandably suspected because he was black and tragically dead for the same reason” (emphasis mine.) Cohen feels that this was a tragedy because Trayvon looked like he could be a criminal, and he makes no bones about the fact that race is the primary reason. And that’s why Cohen, and many others, believe that Zimmerman was wrong, but committed no crime because he had not only reasonable suspicion based on Trayvon’s race, but was justified in using lethal force for the same reason.
Although crime in general in the United States has been declining for quite some time, the fear of crime has not. So, now, 31 US states have passed Stand Your Ground laws, which generally allow people to use deadly force even if they have the option of retreating instead if they feel threatened with death or serious harm. The decisive factor is how they feel, not whether or not the threat was real.
These laws are, unsurprisingly, championed and their campaigns financed in great measure by the enormously powerful gun lobby, led by the National Rifle Association. They’re appealing to Americans who are frightened and are no longer interested in catching criminals but, understandably, want to think of ways to prevent violent crimes before they occur. This sort of confrontational prevention has an obvious appeal. Equally obvious is the downside of racial profiling and frightened: angry people either being too aggressive or, worse lashing out at the perceived object of their terror.
I can’t say whether Zimmerman acted out of that fear or that anger, how much of it was racism and how much was the pent-up rage that more and more middle class Americans are feeling. But I can say that whichever of those categories his killing of Martin fell into, it is a very American response, one that is reflective of the way the US, and other countries, also behave in their foreign policy.
Trayvon Martin is indistinguishable from the long list of innocent Muslim civilians killed by US drone attacks. Or the thousands of Palestinians who have been beaten or killed by Israeli soldiers, police, settlers, rocket fire and heavy ammunition. He may have just as well been an Iranian who is being slowly driven into poverty and even starvation by Western sanctions. Or any one of a wide range of Syrians who have been summarily executed because of their ethnicity, or who were in an area targeted by their President.
People are killed in conflict or in “security operations” for a wide variety of reasons. In a world of conflict, that may be very difficult to avoid. But Richard Cohen demonstrates that racial profiling will happen: “If I were a young black male and were stopped just on account of my appearance, I would feel violated. If the police are abusing their authority and using race as the only reason, that has got to stop. But if they ignore race, then they are fools and ought to go into another line of work.”
We bring sanctions against Iran despite the fact that the International Atomic Energy Agency has been doing inspections and “the Agency continues to verify the non-diversion of declared material at these facilities.” We are threatening worse and even threatening war. Iran profiles as a dangerous entity and has certainly backed murderous Islamic militants. But we are hitting the Iranian people very hard not because there is evidence backing that decision, but because they frighten us.
Israel has besieged Gaza, despite the fact that attacks from the Strip have ebbed and flowed for years, with no relationship at all to the siege. Yet, they have driven an impoverished people even deeper into that poverty. And in the West Bank, Israel has made sure to hold the Palestinians, as a whole, under an iron fist, regardless of the fact that there have been no organized attacks of any kind from there in years.
These, and many other examples in Egypt, in Russia, and all over the world, are different from the Stand Your Ground principles in the US only in scale. People will be afraid. There will always be a reason to fear based on appearance or beliefs.
Racial profiling, as Cohen says, does not simply appear out of the ether. Cohen alludes to crime statistics that do show that the percentage of African Americans who commit crimes like robbery and murder is much higher than it is among whites. Even Cohen understands there are reasons, like the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow and ongoing economic disparities and classical racism, which are behind that. But what he fails to acknowledge is that, even the imprecise US government statistics (which fail to account in their numbers for the fact that police routinely arrest people of color and US courts convict people of color at a much higher rate than whites) show that the criminal population of color remains a tiny percentage of the overall group.
That’s why we’re not supposed to profile. Because for every black man or white man who is a thief or a killer, there are a million who are not. For every Muslim who attacks civilians, there are tens of millions who do not. Just like for every Israeli who beats an unarmed and defenseless Palestinian, there are hundreds of thousands who are appalled by the action.
But when we adopt the idea that the best defense is a good offense, when we take a Stand Your Ground attitude that encourages confrontation, it is inevitable that innocents will get killed. George Zimmerman was guilty of manslaughter for intentionally provoking a deadly confrontation because he fears young, black men. The verdict should have reflected that.
As easy as it is to blame Zimmerman, we should be careful to remember the context. It was the American emphasis on preemption, ultimately, that made it possible to murder Trayvon Martin. In such circumstances, it thus becomes equally incumbent upon Americans to address their own culpability.
We cannot, for example, allow our government to take the same attitude towards would be terrorists abroad, and not expect this same mentality to manifest itself at home and influence our conduct towards one another. Particularly in a country, as plagued by racism, as the United States.
In the same vein, we cannot expect a country where our very laws encourage racial profiling and provoking violent confrontations, as Stand Your Ground laws do, to be able to realistically ensure minimal civilian damage or follow established international law and norms in its defense policies. Both aspects need to change.
Photographs courtesy of Joel Schalit