The more thuggy-minded among us seem to be taking the verdict in the Trayvon Martin case as cultural validation of their ‘tough-guy’, violence-glorifying, trigger-happy, vigilante mindset, as evidenced by some of the reactions I’ve seen.
And it’s not just the culture of violence that’s being celebrated by so many that concerns me. Racism permeates this case, from the circumstances that led to the original confrontation, to the killing itself, to the conduct of the court case, to the public’s perception of it all. It’s all-important we confront the issue of racism and figure out how to solve the problem, and there are countless passionate and thoughtful people taking this on right now. Here, however, I’d like to address another little-discussed American prejudice exemplified by this case and by the controversy surrounding it.
George Zimmerman may have been suspicious of Trayvon Martin simply because he hadn’t seen him before and he fit the description of burglars recently in the neighborhood, or Zimmerman may have profiled Martin as a criminal just because he’s a malicious racist. No one can read his mind, and he may not even know his own; we can only base our judgments of his motivations on our interpretation of the evidence. Since race was a factor in this case and racism has long been endemic in American culture, this has been among the hottest subjects of debate from the outset. But there’s another assumption implied in the public discourse that I wish was also a prominent part of the discussion. Even if Zimmerman really thought that the young man he saw might be a burglar, even if he knew for certain that he was one, why would chasing him down with a gun, provoking a potentially deadly confrontation, be justified in the first place? Since there had been burglaries reported in Zimmerman’s neighborhood prior to the Martin killing, Zimmerman and his defenders claim Zimmerman’s sole motive in pursuing and confronting Martin was to protect the community. Other more enthusiastic Zimmerman defenders try to make the point that Martin was a troublemaker, implying that if Martin had committed property and/or drug crimes before, Zimmerman’s suspicions and actions are somehow validated. Perhaps they see these rumors about Martin’s past as evidence that he was probably given to acting like a stereotypical troublemaker or criminal? But, again, even if Zimmerman has good reason to suppose that the young man he saw was a burglar or a petty criminal, why would this, in any way, justify the actions he took that night?
It seems to be that Americans are so obsessed with property rights, are so attached to and in love with the stuff we own, that we assume that anyone who messes with it is ‘asking for it’: deserving of physical harm and even death. Another controversial case, of a man who picked up a knife and chased down a man for stealing his car radio , killing him, then being excused on the basis of ‘Stand Your Ground’ legislation, provides another telling example of this common American attitude. The controversy over the latter case, it’s true, does include more dismay over the fact that a man lost his life over the comparatively minor infraction of stealing such non-essential luxury items as radios. And the stabber’s argument, that he feared for his life because the thief swung a bag of radios at him, appears ludicrous to most, myself included.
To be clear, there are times when theft can mean life-or-death to the victim of it, such as horse-stealing in the frontier days when a horse was essential to one’s livelihood, or when someone’s life-saving drugs or medical equipment is stolen. In this sort of case, there is much more justification for aggressive defense from thieves. But I’m quite certain such cases are relatively rare. And, of course, there’s armed robbery, which is different, because in this sort of situation the thief is the one who first introduced the life-threatening element to the situation. I would agree there’s much more justification for self-defense here. But, when you consider two important pieces of evidence, that widespread gun ownership does not correlate world-wide with low rates of gun deaths (as deterrence theories would predict), and that most people, in conditions of stress, are terrible shots and often mistakenly hit innocent people, it seems clear that avoiding confrontation, if possible, is more often the way to preserve the lives of everyone involved. But, we do have a strong instinct for self-preservation and for defending the lives of our loved ones, and I argue, the right to do so, so self-defense cases such as these are not what I’m talking about here.
I’m talking about the very idea that it’s okay for people to defend their non-essential property in such a way that someone might be killed as a result. If evidence was presented that the burglaries in Zimmerman’s neighborhood resulted in a life-threatening situation because of the thieves, we can place this in the frontier-horse-stealing category. Same would go for the second case, if we found out that there was some crazy science-fiction scenario going on where the radio in the man’s car was the one thing that kept him alive. Now, no-one, myself included, would argue that thieves should be allowed to go on stealing to their heart’s content, unmolested by anyone. They should be captured, put on trial, made to pay restitution, and jailed if that’s what it takes to protect others from being preyed on. We rely on our police force rather than vigilantes to make sure people are forced to take responsibility for their actions, so that the protectors of society are well-trained to preserve human life whenever possible, and are publicly accountable if they abuse their power. (As we’ve seen with some historically corrupt police forces, such as the LAPD, we sometimes need to do a much better job at keeping them accountable. Most police officers, however, I think are in fact honorable and do care about the well-being of their communities. But we don’t hear about the good ones in the news, just the bad ones, so many have a distorted view of the police community as a whole.)
I hope the DOJ does prosecute Zimmerman, as the NAACP is urging, for the very reason that Zimmerman took it on himself to go out and chase down a man he suspected of stealing, with a gun at his side. This was a grown man, who should have been old enough to know better, who made decisions that resulted in a minor’s death. Zimmerman disregarded the instructions of the police, our trained and accountable public representatives, not to confront anyone. He thought that his own private evaluation of the situation was more important than other considerations, and it appears to me that he placed Martin’s, his own, and potentially, innocent passers-by’s lives at risk because he thought that some stuff being stolen justified his doing so. And not enough people, it seems to me, are willing to question this one aspect of Zimmerman’s whole mess of unjustified assumptions.
But, sadly, Americans as a whole are just too obsessed with stuff, and so much so that we’re not likely to consider whether getting and keeping the stuff we want is worth the cost to others. (I can’t speak for other cultures as well as I can for my own, perhaps we’re not unique in this sort of perverted set of priorities. Some cultures tolerate or promote killing to preserve their own honor, for example.) It’s not only these ‘stand your ground’ cases. We all thoughtlessly consume products that we know or suspect are made in conditions where the workers are treated horribly and work in dangerous, even deadly, circumstances. We buy our cheap fashions and chat on our smartphones, never demanding that companies that make these things improve their factory conditions and stop polluting, and even worse, keep giving our tacit consent to the whole system by pouring our consumer dollars into it without a murmur. I just went and checked right now in my underwear drawer, and confirmed that some panties I bought were indeed made in Bangladesh, even though I have several pairs I started making and set aside. Sewing underwear is tedious, and it was so much easier to just run out a buy a few cheap pairs. I bought them as thoughtlessly and innocently, American-style, as anyone else, even though I should know better. I’ve been an indie fashion designer for years and decided I didn’t want to be part of the mainstream fashion industry after my research revealed that cheap fashion is among the most polluting, wasteful, and human-rights-violating industries in the world, worse than coal, I’d argue. But there it is, I bought those panties anyway.
I’m not making the point that buying a smartphone or panties made in Bangladesh is like gunning a young man down. I’m making the point that perhaps we Americans, indeed, all human beings a little too obsessed with stuff, need to reassess our priorities. I’m making the point that our attitude about stuff, that we are entitled to have as much as we want and can afford, has led us to make some very misguided moral judgments. I think it’s made us too blind to the various ways in which our love of stuff, from everyday purchasing of goods we suspect but don’t know are made in miserable sweatshops, to the well-phrased philosophical argument that there’s an essential link between property rights and liberty, have made us thoughtlessly accept some things we shouldn’t accept. Whether we think we can or can’t condemn Zimmerman because we think he’s a racist or lawless vigilante, I think we absolutely should condemn his and all of our attitudes that place the acquisition and protection of our stuff as more important that the lives and safety of our fellow human beings. Trayvon Martin was not, arguably, only a victim of racism and vigilantism: he may also be a victim of our love of stuff.