What follows is an exchange on Facebook regarding George Zimmerman’s guilt or innocence in the Trayvon Martin shooting. It is a perfect illustration of one dimension of the two competing visions for America.
SH: I worry about the popular focus on the details of the Zimmerman case, because it plays into a right-wing narrative: That the facts not in dispute aren’t already dispositive for public policy purposes. (Disclaimer: the details are important for the trial and the jury, but what the public needs to get out of this is that we have created a context that increases rather than decreases violence, does so in ways which implicate racial prejudices and stereotypes, and that we need to pull back from that approach). Zimmerman set out with a gun looking for “bad guys” to defend himself against, identified an unarmed black teen in a hoodie walking home from the store as just such a “bad guy,” pursued the teen despite being told by the police dispatcher not to, and ended up shooting that teen to death. Nothing else really matters in terms of what this incident tells us about our continuing moral failure as a society in regards to both violence and race, and we shouldn’t let anyone sell the false narrative that it does.
MS: The main factor that needs to be decided is if Zimmerman really defended himself or got too heated. This case was screwed from the beginning based on the race issue being presented.
SH: M, I disagree, on both counts. If our laws currently sanction someone going out with a gun looking for people to defend himself against, identifying one such on the basis of his own perceptions (which certainly do seem have been influenced by race in this case, because there’s absolutely no evidence or even suggestion that Martin was doing anything other than “being black” to arouse Zimmerman’s suspicions), pursuing that innocent person, and as a result ending up shooting that person to death, then our laws are in error.
CL: I mean, seriously, what am I missing? Why was this case brought in the first place? Zimmerman is a creepy-ass cracker, but there isn’t enough evidence for a murder rap. I might not be some fancy, big city attorney, but it seems like the local prosecutors had a good reason for not pressing charges.
SH: What you’re missing is that when an armed assailant pursues an innocent individual walking home from the store and shoots him to death, that is certainly prima facie evidence of a crime.
CL: That’s really dumb. It’s conceded that Zimmerman was following Martin around for no good reason. But just because someone is following you around for no good reason doesn’t give you the right to attack him. If we don’t know who attacked who, then we can’t convict. This isn’t complicated.
SH: C, Zimmerman wasn’t just “following Martin around for no good reason,” but was doing so while armed and with the stated intention of finding bad guys. It’s a bit bizarre that you think someone who goes out with a gun and stalks an innocent stranger walking home from the store should get to claim that the altercation he thus incited (if there was one) means that he then acted in self-defense when he ended up shooting his stalking victim to death and thus is innocent of any crime, but that the kid who reacted to being stalked had no right to defend himself against his stalker!!! This is the problem with your underlying ideology: It is an aggressive one, which incites violence, which helps to explain why America has a homicide rate from 2 to 11 times higher than any other developed nation on Earth.
Let me ask you a question, C: If the person stalked had been a white woman, who, spooked by the stalker, grabbed something to defend herself, stepped off the path out of sight, came out and confronted her stalker, ended up swinging at him and making contact, and then was shot to death, would you be as adamant that the stalker was completely devoid of responsibility for her death?
When you go out with a gun looking for bad guys, follow innocent people because you arbitrarily decide that they might be a bad guy, and end up shooting one such person to death, you are damn well responsible for the death of that person whose only crime (if any at all) was to react to being stalked by an armed assailant! That there are people in this country who can’t grasp that is horrifying.
CL: The evidence is that Zimmerman followed Martin — but there is no good evidence of who started the fight. This whole “kind who reacted to being stalked had no right to defend himself!!” line of argument is unsubstantiated. Maybe Zimmerman hunted down Martin and shot him. Maybe Zimmerman followed Martin, Martin didn’t like it and decided to attack Zimmerman, and then Zimmerman defended himself. Zimmerman is guilty of murder in the first scenario and guilty of being an idiot in the second. So far in the trial, the evidence isn’t really helping us figure out which scenario is the real one.
SH: You didn’t answer my question: If it were a white woman who had been stalked by a black guy she didn’t know, grabbed something to defend herself, stepped off the path, confronted her stalker, ended up in that confrontation taking a swing at him and making contact, and then was shot to death by the stalker (who, as it happens, wasn’t just a stalker, but an armed stalker), would you be so adamant that the stalker was or should be completely devoid of any legally enforceable responsibility for that woman’s death? I doubt it.
And what is the only difference between that scenario and the one we are discussing? The races and genders of the stalker and his victim. I even added in arming the woman being stalked with an object, to make her as threatening to her stalker as Martin was to his.
CA: Steve, would you rather police and security personnel not be armed, or not investigate further into something they can articulate to be suspicious? I don’t know what exactly happened in this instance, but it sounds like Zimmerman was a hired security professional whose job it was to provide security in the area he was in. He saw something and/or someone he thought was worth checking out, which was his job. If Martin was innocent and not doing anything wrong I imagine this would have been a quick encounter and brief conversation about how he is in the area for good reason, ie he lives there or is staying with family, and that would have been the end of it. The fact it turned into a brawl for some reason would seem to indicate Martin got caught doing something he shouldn’t have been doing by security. Zimmerman did have a gun, and he was out looking for bad guys. Thing is, bad guys don’t usually wear signs indicating to the world that they are bad guys. So police and security contact many, many perfectly innocent people all the time after seeing something that might be suspicious. An innocent person will generally provide a legitimate explanation of whatever behavior was observed that seemed suspicious and the contact is over very quickly. If in the course of determining whether or not someone is innocent or appears guilty of something, Martin attacked Zimmerman, then Martin just committed a crime and Zimmerman has a right to defend himself.
SH: No, he wasn’t “a hired security professional.” He was a neighborhood watch volunteer, which is not a credential, and is not a license to kill. And the whole point is that Zimmerman WASN’T a hired security professional, that he was told by the police dispatcher NOT TO follow Martin, that his actions were those of a private citizen reacting to his private prejudices against the instructions of the actual police, that there is no legal or moral difference between a private citizen that you identify with stalking an unarmed person you don’t identify with and a private citizen you don’t identify with stalking an unarmed person you do identify with, and that when an armed stalker ends up shooting to death the person he was stalking, that stalker is responsible for that death, even if the stalker was a self-appointed vigilante rather than a career criminal, and even if your victim was a black kid in a hoodie rather than, for instance, a middle class white woman. And, again, it is horrifying that there are still so many people in this country who can’t grasp that.
CL: What we have now is something like this:
1. A follows B
2. [[[SOMETHING HAPPENS]]]
3. A shoots B
You seem to know exactly what happened at point 2. I applaud your insight.
SH: One beloved right-wing rhetorical ploy is to filter information being considered in such a way as to arrive at a preferred conclusion (sometimes done by those on the left as well, but with far less of a “cornerstone of the ideology” aspect to it). So, let’s be more complete, shall we?
1) A goes out with a gun looking for “bad guys.”
2) B is a black kid in a hoodie walking home from a store.
3) A sees B walking through the neighborhood and decides, apparently on the basis of 2 above, that B looks suspicious.
4) A calls the police, who advise A not to follow the kid.
5) A tells the police that those “damn assholes always get away with it” (or something to that effect; I don’t have the exact quote in front of me), apparently referring to the black kid in a hoodie walking home from the store, and pursues the kid, with a gun, despite having been told by the police not to.
6) (Something happens)
7) A shoots B.
I have no idea what happened at your point 2 (my point 6). My point is that, while it may have legal relevance because of fucked-up right-wing yahoo laws, it isn’t really relevant to the moral conclusion that A is responsible for B’s death., as a result of the aggressive (and apparently racially motivated) decisions that A made which incited the incident that resulted in A killing B.
Personally, I don’t want racist whack-jobs running around with guns inciting violence, and then claiming that their having shot to death unarmed black kids walking home from the store that they decided to pursue while armed and out looking for trouble was “self-defense,” and I would probably feel even more strongly about it if my skin were darker. But, hey, that’s just me…, and every rational, decent human being on Earth.
What this exchange illustrates is the nature of the two competing ideologies in regards to violence, race, and whether to be a society driven by our fears and bigotries or a society striving to do better than that. The two overarching orientations illustrated here are discussed in greater depth and detail in Debunking The Arguments of the American Gun Culture, and a thorough analysis of the fundamental flaws of modern American right-wing thought is provided in Why The Far-Right Is On The Wrong Side Of Reason, Morality, Humanity and History.