George Zimmerman helped a family in an overturned SUV today. It’s nice timing; he has been in hiding since his recent acquittal of the second-degree murder of Trayvon Martin. It is a lucky piece of PR for Zimmerman, as tensions have been high. Some might even call it fishy. Zimmerman claims the killing was in self defense, and has been hiding because he is perceived as a vigilante. But “Stand-Your-Ground” precedents in Florida (and elsewhere) say that if you feel threatened, you can legally kill someone.
I heard the story as it broke on NPR in 2012. Amy Goodman played a call Zimmerman made right before the altercation. Someone suspicious had gotten into a gated community and Zimmerman, an off-duty neighborhood watch member, followed him. At one point there is a scuffling noise and someone begins yelling, “Help!” Shortly after that, Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager, bled to death on the street.
The police gathered up Martin’s body and treated Zimmerman for minor injuries, questioned him for five hours, and let him go. Naturally, claims of racism abounded. At the time, before I knew anything about the case, all the focus on race kind of annoyed me. In my mind, whether Martin was black, white, or camouflage, Zimmerman had shot him to death and would surely go to jail.
So when he was acquitted and released, the public response was justifiable outrage. There appears no doubt that Zimmerman killed Martin. But the jurors—all female, five white and one black—were shackled by the same laws as the judge. Because of this cowboy logic in the state of Florida, Zimmerman is guilty of no crime.
So, protests broke out across the country. Obama spoke about Martin as though it could have been him thirty-five years ago. Now the media speculates that federal charges could be laid. People seem to wonder how laws can exist that let a killer free.
Florida’s “Stand-Your-Ground” law says that a person can use reasonable means, up to and including lethal force, to protect oneself. The law also concedes that there is no obligation to attempt to avoid danger. It seems I can be out on the street in a bad neighborhood and walk right into danger, and if I feel threatened I can pull a gun on someone and shoot that person to death without trying to avoid doing so (of course, it has to be plausible that I am in real danger).
Neighborhood watch programs are part of the reason the stand-your-ground laws exist outside of the home. The strange thing about this arrangement is that a neighborhood watch in this case has no obligation to protect the neighborhood peaceably and avoid situations like these. Theoretically, a neighborhood watch program could easily become a vigilante group.
Unfortunately, racial profiling has become a tolerable practice in our society, employed by border patrols, airport security, and street cops, and there seems to be no getting away from it. The sad part is that profiling anyone is a simple generalization, requiring no reasonable evidence of culpability before so-called defensive actions can be taken. This concoction of rights seems so precarious, and if the stakes weren’t so high these days (i.e. nuclear terrorism), few people in their right mind would stand for it.
According to State of Florida v. George Zimmerman, Zimmerman is not a criminal. But thanks to an over-indulgence in news coverage, I know what George Zimmerman looks like and where he lives. If I were a citizen of Florida, I would truly feel threatened if I saw Zimmerman on the street. This is not because of profiling, but because of facts (specifically, the fact that he recently killed someone and got away with it).
Hasn’t this slippery, highly-publicized case shown how easy it might be to manufacture a scenario where a recently acquitted killer is shot “in self-defense”? I emphatically hope this doesn’t happen, but if people fail to look at the underlying stand-your-ground laws the way they fail to look at ridiculous gun laws, it is conceivable we could see a string of legal killings in retaliation. The whole point of these laws is to protect such actions.
Laws like this protect a cowboy ideology where “heroes” can shoot first and ask questions later. Of course, after the U.S.A.’s heroic, preemptive war on terrorism and “weapons of mass destruction”, should anyone be surprised that these laws apply to individuals as well?
[P.S. I'm not saying I'm completely and utterly against these laws. The issues are not that cut and dry, unfortunately, and I would much rather sit back and complain that actually try to craft the laws that protect everyone equally.]