Monday, March 26, 2012

Of Trayvon Martin and Standing Your Ground

The incredibly sad and outrageous story about the killing of Trayvon Martin continues to reverberate throughout the country-- as well it should.  There is so much about this event and the laws surrounding it that are deeply disturbing.

At a societal level, there is the law that is being used to justify George Zimmermann's actions. In 2005, at the behest of the National Rifle Association, Florida was the first state in the nation to pass this so-called "Stand Your Ground" law, which removes the obligation for someone to retreat from a perceived threat and supposedly authorizes force to be met with force, legally. This same kind of law has been cited as justifying the actions of a young Oklahoma mother who shot a knife-wielding attacker who burst into her home. I think actually these two cases are very different. First of all, in the Oklahoma case, the attacker had possibly attempted to break into her house before, looking for painkillers left over from her late husband's battle against cancer, and he burst into her home where she was alone with her three-month-old baby. The ability to retreat here was obviously not possible. It was her home. She had barricaded the door and called the police as the intruder spent several minutes trying to break in with his accomplice. She was told the police would probably not arrive in time. She could not leave her home with her baby without exposing herself to her attacker and his accomplice outside her home. Second of all, the so-called "castle doctrine" would have applied to this situation, making the need for further legislation unnecessary. It was a completely different situation.

But George Zimmermann was supposedly driving down the street of his gated community when he saw Trayvon Martin walking along, and got out of his car and began to follow the teen, while armed. Both  Martin and Zimmermann have a right to be where they were, and Zimmermann had no overriding protective interest to initiating the confrontation with Martin. Yes, I said, "initiate." Zimmermann called police, and the dispatcher told him that it was unnecessary to continue to follow Martin, and yet Zimmermann, let me repeat, an ARMED Zimmermann, continued to follow Martin. At some point, some sort of confrontation occurred, and Zimmermann shot Martin in the chest and killed him. Today, the news comes out that Zimmermann now claims at this late date that Martin attacked him first and broke his nose.

Now let's turn this around. Trayvon Martin is walking along the street, and a stranger gets out of his car and begins to follow him. The man continues to follow him even when Martin asks his follower what he is doing. Why doesn't anyone consider that Martin had a real right to be afraid of the stranger who was acting belligerently toward him? If Zimmermann has the right to meet force with force, why doesn't Trayvon Martin have that same right? In fact, since Martin was unarmed, he is at a decided disadvantage against an armed man-- although he probably did not know that originally. Let's also remember that the only person who can give an account of this incident is the person who pulled the trigger, who thus has had a month's lag time as well as an absolute incentive to spin this story in a way that exonerates himself. And I really wish the authorities in that Florida town would realize that a law like this cuts both ways in a case such as this one. EVEN IF Martin pushed or punched Zimmermann first, one could definitely argue that Martin had a right to do that under the same law that Zimmermann is now citing as justifying his actions. Where will this end? With the absolute further unraveling of what little civility is left in our culture at this sad moment in American history.

And that very fact leads to my overriding concern with this legislation. There is an ethical, and indeed, a religious aspect that has also been overlooked. This type of law is predicated on the assumption that anyone you meet has hostile intent toward you. It is yet another example of the decay of the fabric of community and the erosion of the principle that individual rights are limited once they begin to interfere with someone else's rights. There's a word for the condition in which someone suspects all of those around him of bad intent. It's called paranoia, and the last time I checked, it was considered a psychological disorder. The way this law is written, anyone could make the claim that they have the right to be judge and executioner if they PERCEIVE that they are being threatened, and the term "perception" is incredibly broad. The problem is, the person on the other end of that gun is obviously also being threatened.

George Zimmerman is a civilian. He is not a peace officer. Therefore, Zimmermann had no right to stop another citizen on the street. This entire altercation begins with Zimmermann feeling the right to make an assumption about another citizen and decide that he has the right to initiate a confrontation-- emboldened by his knowledge that he is armed. Zimmermann and Martin had an equal right to use of a public space. Zimmermann may claim that he lived in the neighborhood and that Martin was just visiting-- but how did he know that Martin did not live there at the time he began this confrontation? He didn't. He made an assumption about Trayvon Martin being out of place based upon his age, his race, his attire, whatever. Furthermore, by refusing the dispatcher's instruction to break off the engagement with Martin, hasn't George Zimmermann undermined any attempt by his defenders (or himself) to describe him as "law-abiding?"

These "Stand Your Ground" laws are horrible laws that ultimately could end in shoot-outs in the streets, particularly in states where concealed carry is common. Meant as a deterrent to crime, they here have promoted the most heinous level of disregard of human life, based on the biased assumptions of a man who was allowed a permit to carry a concealed gun even after being convicted of assault on a police officer and having been under a restraining order by a former girlfriend. And yet at least some authorities in the state of Florida are arguing that this person's judgment is to be trusted-- even over that of a police officer, if you think about it. When a police officer shoots someone with his or her weapon, he or she is placed on leave while the incident is investigated-- and these are people who are trained in the restrained use of force. You have a situation where a police officer is held to a different standard than a citizen who lacks the police officer's training and judgment. And this is absolutely an idea that subverts the very principle of justice, as well as law and order.

I find it interesting that many of the same people who supported this unjust expansion of personal liberty at the expense of the interests of peace, order, and community, also profess to be Christian. And where in scripture does it say "Shoot first, and ask questions later," or, indeed, as laws like this are sometimes alternatively labelled "Make My Day" laws-- as in the famous movie quote, "Go ahead, make my day?" The last time I checked, the fictional movie character who originally mouthed those words, Dirty Harry, was not held up as a paragon of ethical or spiritual virtue. And there's another aspect that no one seems to be contemplating in all the aggressive posturing about one's right to be armed in public.

A final point-- what is the logical conclusion to this case, but the decision by more people to walk about armed and paranoid to protect themselves from the George Zimmermanns of this world? That should be a sobering thought, indeed.


  1. Thank you for saying what I am thinking and feeling.....

  2. Excellent Leslie.

  3. Well said, Leslie. I do find it ironic (and scary) that so many of the people believing everyone should be armed seemed to also argue for a "Christian" nation. Paranoia doesn't seem to be part of the Sermon on the Mount. These people seem to live more for the OT "eye for an eye."

  4. Julie, I know. "What Would Jesus Be Packing?" just doesn't have the right ring to it. At all.

  5. Leslie,

    I agree. There have been other issues with "stand your ground" legislation. For example, there was one instance where an individual was shot and killed after drunkenly breaking into his own home--or what he thought to be his own home.

    The common law rule, requiring retreat until you cannot retreat any further, isn't about cowardice. It's about doing the right thing, which is making every effort to avoid killing another human being unless absolutely necessary.

  6. And yet, many of these wannabe Dirty Harry types believe they are eight feet tall and covered with hair.... When they have their guns.