That don’t look a thing like me
So Trayvon Martin is dead, and George Zimmerman is free, and a whole lot of people are understandably upset about those two facts. A whole lot of other people seem to be upset that people are upset. The result is an awful lot of stupid squawking, none of which brings us closer to understanding a thing. Indeed, one of the motivators of that squawking is a subconscious desire not to understand a thing. It’s better that way.
To understand why we prefer not to understand what has happened, let’s return to the most basic facts. A man carrying a concealed handgun gets it into his head that another man, who has done him no harm, is up to no good. He pursues the second man. A confrontation occurs. He shoots and kills the second man. And then the law lets him go, because he says it was self-defence.
The law is a reflection of the nation that creates it. It is not a mere rulebook, but a description of our shared values, and most of the time it works pretty well, because we share fundamental intuitions of what is just and what is not. The image reflected in the imperfect mirror of the law looks a lot like us, and we are content. But when a man with a concealed handgun pursues another man for no good reason, and ends up shooting him, our intuition that he is blameworthy collides with the fact of his acquittal with a discordant shriek and a rending of metal. We stare into the mirror of the law and a fearful, angry man gripping a handgun stares back, and we rub our eyes and shake our heads and mutter, “That don’t look a thing like me.”
It most assuredly does.
This is, of course, cognitive dissonance, and to resolve it we go in search of explanations that protect our sense of who we are. For some, this mandates that Trayvon Martin be transformed from the victim of random events into a villain who deserves his fate. It is not enough simply to believe that Zimmerman feared for his life at the moment he pulled the trigger, because the uncomfortable fact is that Martin himself undoubtedly felt also that he was defending himself. So Martin has to become a criminal, a hulking 6’2″ fighter with a history of drug use, burglary, and who knows what else. Martin is vilified, Zimmerman justified, the law is just, and the reflection in the mirror looks just fine.
For others, the problem is more difficult. The law cannot be so easily vindicated, and so we declare that the reflection in the mirror is not us but those other guys. The courts are racist, the cops are racist, and the jury was racist; everyone but us has somehow missed the obvious fact that Martin was shot because he was black. And the problem is guns: guns, guns, and more guns, the American fetish, guns and the gun nuts who like guns and whose powerful lobbyists push through laws that allow people like George Zimmerman to shoot people like Trayvon Martin and get away with it. So the reflection in the mirror don’t look a think like us, but we’re fine with that, because that’s not us at all: we’re the disenfranchised ones who bear no responsibility for the law.
None of this is quite right, of course. Zimmerman may well have feared for his life at the time he pulled the trigger, but Trayvon Martin was not a hulking, violent monster; he was a 17-year-old kid prone to the same lapses of judgment as other 17-year-old kids, lapses of judgment that might include jumping a man who followed him at night for no apparent reason — if indeed that is what happened. And while it would be silly to pretend that race and guns are not in play, the unpleasant reality is that Zimmerman walked free because the prosecution failed to make a coherent case against him, one that would establish not that his actions were blameworthy, which they indisputably were, but that they were criminal, beyond a reasonable doubt. The outcome may not have been just, but it was not in the least surprising.
So America is left facing the mirror, one in which men carrying concealed weapons may shoot and kill anyone who seems to be an imminent threat. One of the better explanations for what has gone wrong in America is that its laws have failed to keep up with its “gun culture,” but this, too, is inadequate. American law has not failed to keep up with its gun culture at all; American law is the product of American culture, and of its gun culture. The problem is not that American law has failed to respond to the fact that perhaps 1 in 20 Americans now carries a concealed handgun; the problem is that it has responded — just as it responded to the 19th century revolution in firepower by discarding centuries of common-law tradition in favour of the “True Man” doctrine, the precursor to Stand Your Ground.
America has responded to its sheepdogs — those who for whatever reason appoint themselves the task of protecting the bulk of the American people, the sheep, from harm — by reassuring them through laws like Florida’s 2005 Stand Your Ground law that they will not be punished for their acts. And although Stand Your Ground was not in play in Zimmerman’s defence, the rationale behind it colours the American common law, going back to 1876 when the Ohio Supreme Court decided, in Erwin v. State, that the right to personal autonomy trumps the public peace. It’s a foundation principle of American thought: you have the right to be anyplace where you have the right to be, and to do anything that you have the right to do, to go anywhere and do anything unless the law prohibits it. That gives you the right to protest in the street against a court verdict; it equally gives you the right to follow an unarmed man who has done you no harm, just because you think he looks suspicious.
This is what you get, in short, when you hold the right to individual autonomy above all others, when you forget that rights go along with a responsibility to preserve the public peace. And this is why the image in the mirror, as ugly as it may seem, is undeniably accurate. Zimmerman’s right to autonomy was supreme; Martin’s became irrelevant, because he is dead. That’s America, where history is written by the victors, and has been since 1876.