For all our disparate values, when Americans go to the movies we all crave one thing when the credits roll. A good end to the story.
The need to have loose ends wrapped up, to bring a sense of closure, is endemic. Perhaps the best evidence of this need is the collective response when people don’t get it. They generally don’t react well.
Such was the case when six Florida jurors acquitted George Zimmerman of all criminal charges in the death of Trayvon Martin last Saturday (TNT 7/14). When word of the decision spilled out, those who had waited patiently for the criminal justice system to hold Zimmerman accountable for Martin’s death, and thus complete the story arc, were left hanging.
Without that release, those who viewed the trial as a real life docudrama came unglued. Protests erupted in Florida and Texas, violence followed in Los Angeles and Oakland, as people lashed out against their perception of a storyline gone horribly awry.
Race is the reason this story continues to captivate public attention, of course. Unfortunately, whether Zimmerman saw Martin only as a black man in a hoody is a question that may never be answered. But there is much more to this story than the ethnic background of either Zimmerman or Martin.
The gut wrenching despair that protesters from Los Angeles to New York voiced so loudly is, at its source, a cry for justice for an unarmed youth killed by an armed adult.
Let’s back up. When Zimmerman made his initial 911 call to report a suspicious subject, exactly how and why 17-year-old Martin’s actions were suspicious was left unsaid. The call receiver next instructed Zimmerman not to approach the subject, a directive he obviously and tragically ignored. At some point, Zimmerman approached Martin close enough that the young man turned to face him.
Let’s stop here and ask a couple questions. First, does anyone honestly believe Zimmerman would have had the temerity to confront Martin without a firearm? No? Me neither.
Second, would it be reasonable to think that Martin, walking alone when he was suddenly confronted by an unknown adult male, might have reverted to “fight or flight” mode? Yea? I think so too.
By failing to wait for the police to respond, by provoking a confrontation with Martin, Zimmerman’s own hubris transformed an unremarkable situation into a tragic incident. How did this fact escape the notice of the court? The answer is that none of Zimmerman’s provocative actions were deemed criminally negligent or even unreasonable in the eyes of the court.
Florida’s “Stand your ground law” is part of the problem. This statute blessed Zimmerman’s stupid behavior as it gave him the right to respond with deadly force when attacked. In other words, Zimmerman was given a broad license for poor judgment and a “get out of jail free card” just in case things got sticky.
It is also ironic that this incident played out while Beltway politicians fought to preserve Zimmerman’s gun rights, and advocates promised that private gun ownership saved lives. In reality, the presence of a firearm in a “stand your ground” state failed the real world litmus test just as it failed Trayvon Martin and his family.
Regardless of race, regardless of the details of the ensuing fight between himself and a black youth wearing a hoody, George Zimmerman should be forced to own the consequences of his decision.
If we refuse to recognize that our cultural bias towards armed confrontation has insinuated itself into our legal system, this storyline may very well play out again. The closure we seek for Trayvon Martin will remain just beyond our reach.
And we need closure.