On Learning from Tragedy
If we are to gain anything positive from the tragic shooting death of Trayvon Martin it must be not only in the re-evaluation of the infamous Stand Your Ground laws (SYGs) that are spreading throughout the country, but rather in an assessment of law in general. The Trayvon Martin case highlights the inherent flaw in this and many other popular laws.
The nexus of this flaw is the assumption that in all criminal interactions there is a clear good-guy (victim) and a clear bad-guy (victimizer). The victim is righteous in his actions, while the victimizer is intent on villainy. Those who wrote, sponsored and voted for the Stand Your Ground law in Florida were intent on leveling the obvious injustice in requiring the good-guy to run away from the bad-guy. Clint Eastwood never ran. John Wayne never ran. If I’m in my home, watching television, when suddenly the door bursts open and a thief/murderer/rapist enters, I should be within my rights to shoot him without question.
It’s easy, especially by virtue of American culture, to embrace such an idea. However, human interaction is rarely ever that clear and the roles taken on by people are, more often than not, not so dichotomous as the victim/victimizer roles seen on television. Human interaction is wrought with complexity, emotion, pre-conceived notions, personal history, biological imperatives, socialization, cultural lensing, faith and a myriad other variables. The sinner oft justifies his iniquity, and the villain is never evil in her own eyes.
Such was the case with Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman. It’s likely that the victim/victimizer roles in this interaction were hopelessly confused. It’s impossible to know exactly what transpired between these two actors, but let’s assume that neither Trayvon nor Zimmerman are evil.
Zimmerman is described as a self-appointed neighborhood watch. Apparently, his neighborhood was subject to break-ins and theft, so Zimmerman took it upon himself to help. In any other context we might define this behavior as community oriented, even altruistic. He wanted to be a police officer, revealing a protective “instinct” if you will. Perhaps there are more selfish motives, an overblow sense of authority and the pursuit of status. Indeed, it is likely that Zimmerman held culturally reinforced ideals of manhood.
He sees Trayvon, an unfamiliar face, walking through the neighborhood. And let’s not pander and mince our words. He saw an unfamiliar black face in the neighborhood. Trayvon was a young black man who did not belong. Perhaps Zimmerman is not a racist, but the society in which he was socialized is racist. We cannot separate paradigms of race from our understanding of events.
Regardless, Zimmerman assumes that Trayvon is up to no good and calls the police. He knows, however, that the police will not respond in time. Trayvon is getting away. Maybe there is history of slow response time among the police. So, Zimmerman takes it upon himself to follow Trayvon and ensure that he is caught, guarantee that justice is done. From his perspective he is being a responsible neighbor, citizen and man.
Trayvon had his own perspective, however. This is often neglected in reporting this story, mostly because Trayvon is incapable of offering his perspective. Trayvon is a young man imbued with societal paradigms of manhood, right and race. He notices that an unknown man is following him. Interestingly, by virtue of the Stand Your Ground law, Trayvon was in his rights to stand his ground in the face of threat. How might this story have been different if Trayvon had a gun and used the Stand Your Ground law to justify shooting Zimmerman? Can we say that Trayvon had less of a right to stand his ground than Zimmerman?
Here’s where the details are lost to public knowledge, at least for now. We do not know the transaction between the two principles. It is not, however, a stretch to assume that a confrontation ensued. Trayvon’s girlfriend stated that he asked Zimmerman, “why are you following me?” Not an unreasonable question. Both men were hyped up on adrenaline, perhaps unwilling to back down. Zimmerman believed he had every right to protect his neighborhood; Trayvon was convinced that he had a right to walk down the street unmolested. Matters escalate. Perhaps they push each other, grab at each other. It’s dark. Each man is alone against a possible assailant. One man has a gun. The gun comes out. Anger. A shot. Tragedy.
Who is the good-guy? Who is the bad-guy? What are the parameters of the law in this case? Who had the right to stand his ground? How does the presence of a gun change the calculus of rights? The law was not drafted with such a complex interaction in mind. Yet most violent interactions align closer to this more complex story than to the storied victim/victimizer interaction. This story is that of two people acting within a matrix of decisions, actions and reactions that ended tragically.
Effective laws must take the complexity of human interaction into account. If they do not then the application of such laws can only compound tragic episodes.