On America’s Culture of Violence.
Nine years ago in anticipation of my eldest daughter’s birth, my wife and I undertook the ritual preparation of the baby’s bedroom. We cleaned out the space we had set aside the occasion, and scrubbed and plastered the walls with the patterned paper we had picked out the week before at Lowes. It was a pretty combination of yellow and white stripes and we accented it with a lower border of colorful tulips sprouting up from behind a white picket fence. As soon as the paper had dried I capped the whole project off by installing crown molding –a tedious, arduous and frustrating task I hope never again to repeat (the contractor who installs that stuff for a living earns every penny of his wages and then some, in my opinion). And all in all, it was a charming, warm and welcoming environment for a newborn.
But that was ages ago. In the ensuing years cradles gave way to cribs which later unfolded into daybeds. The daybeds were eventually replaced by princess beds, and were once again brought down from the attic and re-assembled as cribs to welcome the birth of our second child. Furniture was shuffled about, windows were left open to welcome the changing seasons, days grew humid then turned dry, and the wallpaper that had once seemed so fresh began to show its age. First the cheerful border of fenced-in tulips began to peel, and later the edges of the white and yellow paper became unglued. My wife decided it was time to tear it all down and start afresh. Only this time, we would paint the room, and this time the bulk of the labor would fall on my shoulders.
So that is how I spent my weekend, perched atop a step ladder with a paintbrush in one hand, a roll of blue masking tape in the other and only my paint-fume fueled thoughts to keep me company. Perhaps it is because the story has dominated the news lately. Perhaps it is because I was re-decorating the room in which my children sleep. But my thoughts turned again and again to the story of Tayvon Martin, the 17 year old Florida youth who was gunned down by a pistol packing neighborhood watchman as as the young African American strolled through a gated community in the town of Sanford, carrying an iced tea and a pack of Skittles he had bought for a friend.
The story blazed its way into the nation’s headlines no doubt in part because it is in so many ways emblematic of our national pathologies and societal dysfunctions. It is a story of racism and racial profiling, of gun toting vigilantes and Conservative state legislatures in the grip of a gun lobby so powerful that it literally writes the legislation that encourages average citizens to strap a pistol to their hips and administer personal justice from the smoking barrel of a gun.
The law in question and that has drawn so much attention in this case is Florida’s so-called “stand your ground” law, which is spelled out in section 3 of the state of Florida’s statue governing a citizen’s “Justifiable Use of Force.” The relevant paragraphs read:
A person who is not engaged in an unlawful activity and who is attacked in any other place where he or she has a right to be has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.
What makes these words so troubling, and what makes their adoption in the Florida Criminal Code such a radical departure from previous laws governing the use of deadly force by citizens is that it extends the domain in which the law determines that a citizen is not bound by a duty to seek a de-escalation of a brewing conflict. Prior to “stand your ground” if a citizen felt himself in imminent threat of bodily harm, he was expected to attempt to place himself out of harm’s way if possible, to find a way of de-escalating or escaping the confrontation, with the sole exception being the case in which he was protecting his home and personal possessions. After “stand your ground” an individual is no longer required to attempt to evade confrontation, but is instead allowed to stay put and employ force, even deadly force, to deter an assailant, no matter where he finds himself at the time.
Trayvon Martin’s case sparked public outrage not just because most took it as an unarguable example of vigilante justice gone awry –the end result being the death of a young man who had done nothing wrong nor evinced any criminal intent when he was singled out for harassment by his assailant– It drew the public’s indignation because the apparent murderer in this case, a 28 year old man named George Zimmerman, was not arrested after the crime nor even saw his firearm confiscated by authorities. As local police explained, Florida’s “stand your ground” statute seemed to protect Zimmerman, and made an arrest unwarranted pending further investigation.
This explanation fueled widespread rage and disbelief. How was it possible that an pistol packing man could chase down an unarmed youth, against the explicit instructions of the police dispatcher with whom he was in contact, stimulate a confrontation, and gun him down in the street, all with the law’s blessing? What sort of insane legislation permitted something like this? At what point, we asked ourselves, had the Florida legislature lost its marbles and granted its citizens a license to kill indiscriminately and with impunity?
But the more I pondered the statute in question, the more puzzled I was by the manner in which the legal aspects of it were playing out. The more I thought about it, the more I was bothered by a question that no one seemed to be asking. Everyone seemed to assume that the “stand your ground” law in some way gave carte blanche to Zimmerman’s vigilantism and justified his actions that evening. But the facts in the case and the letter of the law would seem to indicate that just the opposite was true. Let us examine the wording of the “stand your ground” statute one more time:
A person who is not engaged in an unlawful activity and who is attacked in any other place where he or she has a right to be has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force…
Why in the world, I began to ask myself, would the Police consider Martin to be the assailant, when it is clear from the audio recording of the conversation between Zimmerman and the police dispatcher that it was Zimmerman who, armed with a semi-automatic pistol, accosted the unarmed Martin. Zimmerman explained to the dispatcher that he was convinced that the young African American male was a hoodlum who was up to no good. The dispatcher advised Zimmerman to suspend pursuit and await the police, but Zimmerman ignored the advice and chased after Martin. Now, the “stand your ground” statute makes it explicit that a citizen is under no duty to retreat when he is attacked, but it says absolutely nothing of pursuit. Indeed, there is nothing in the statute that would seem to grant a citizen the right to chase down a man on the mere suspicion that he was “up to no good.” To be precise, this law in no way grants a citizen the right to “hunt down” another man, but to the contrary, it bestows upon the hunted “who is attacked in any other place where he or she has a right to be” a right to inflict violence upon the hunter, to “meet force with force” in order to “stand his ground.”
So the next question that I asked myself, and that nobody seems to be asking at the moment is this: what if Martin had himself been armed. Florida is a state in which it is notoriously easy to obtain a concealed carry handgun permit. What if Martin had been legally carrying a weapon of his own that night and had shot and killed Zimmerman, instead of the other way around? Let us imagine the following scenario: Martin is walking down the street at night, minding his own business when he is approached by a man wielding a semi-automatic handgun, and giving no indication that he is an officer of the law. Rather than wait and see how the situation plays out, and sensing that he is in imminent danger of “death or great bodily harm,” Martin reaches for his own pistol and guns down the apparent assailant. Would this act not be a permissible one under Florida’s “stand your ground” law?
I’m not ready at the moment to give a “yes” or “no answer” to that question. But it seems to me that this later scenario has at least as much plausibility of being permitted under Florida’s “stand your ground” statute as Zimmerman’s actual claim of self-defense, perhaps more, even. And I’m certainly not willing to venture a guess as to whether in such a circumstance a young African American male such as Martin would have been allowed to re-holster his pistol and walk free as Zimmerman was. That is an exercise that is left to the reader. We all have our own suspicions as to how such a scenario would have played out once the law had arrived on scene. But what truly chills me to the bone is the implication of a scenario in which Martin had killed Zimmerman and the law had shown itself to be colorblind and allowed the young man to walk free. For the implication of such a scenario is not that Martin was an unfortunate victim who, through no fault of his own, happened to be at the wrong place, at the wrong time. The actual implication of such a scenario is that Martin’s biggest mistake that night was venturing out into the street without a pistol of his own. And given the “stand your ground” law’s origins in the smoke filled rooms where NRA lobbyists dictate legislation to sycophantic legislators, this conclusion seems not entirely unwarranted.
And this brings us back to the nature of “stand your ground” laws in general. It brings us back to why it is that attorneys general and police departments around the country have reacted to this sort of legislation with alarm, apprehension and dismay. These are not the laws of a mature and civilized populace. They are not the laws of a people who believe that the best place to work out grievances is the court of law, and that diplomacy and negotiation are the most appropriate path to iron out differences and disputes. Stand Your Ground, meet force with force, no duty to retreat : In their wording and imagery these are laws that are soaked in testosterone and dripping with bluster and bravado. They evoke images of John Wayne and Dirty Harry, and seem tailor made to appeal to the sensibilities of that creature of Clinton era Right-wing invention: the angry white male. We all know the type. He is the semi-professional pugilist with an explosive temper. Quick to anger, he seems to have been born with a chip on his shoulder and sneers at a society that has become too “pussified” for his tastes. He’s the bar patron who’s always itching for a fight, who’s ready to “take it outside” at a moment’s notice, and delights in the opportunity to rumble with impunity. This is the voter that the NRA targets with legislation like “stand your ground,” for it appeals directly to his pugnacious sensibilities and would seem to give an approving nod to his juvenile and under-developed sense of justice: “If that other guy started it, and I’ve got a perfect right to be here, why the fuck should I be the one to back down? Screw that. That sum bitch is going down!”
As more and more accounts surface of the events that transpired on the night of February 26, in Sanford Florida, a fuller picture of the incident that grips the national conversation is beginning to emerge. We will likely never know the full truth, especially given that one of the two participants is dead, but we do know a few things with a fair degree of certainty. We know, for instance, that George Zimmerman was armed on the night of February 26th while Martin carried on a pack of Skittles and a bottle of iced tea. He had nothing so much as a pen knife with which to threaten Zimmerman. We know that Zimmerman chased Martin against the advice of police, and we know that Martin was doing nothing wrong at the time. We also know that at some point a confrontation occurred and that a violent scuffle ensued. Zimmerman’s broken nose and other wounds make that plain. We don’t know what set the initial violent confrontation off. We will never know if Martin, fearing for his life while being chased by an armed stranger, turned on his would-be assailant and fought him in what he felt was a desperate bid to save his own life. We will never know if, to the contrary, Martin’s attack on Zimmerman was less justified. Was Martin’s violent reaction to Zimmerman simply an explosion of the anger felt by every young black male who is furious at being, once again, accosted in a place he has every right to be and without cause, unjustly accused to criminality by an ignorant, racist, asshole?
As I said at the beginning of this piece, the Trayvon Martin affair is an incident that is illustrative of so many of our national pathologies, from racism to our obsession with firearms, to incompetent and irresponsible politicians who build careers from stoking and exploiting our paranoia, and encouraging our society’s fascination with violence and adolescent reification of vigilante justice.
There are many what-if’s about this case that we will likely never know, many unknowns that will likely forever remain a mystery. But of one thing I am certain: if George Zimmerman is allowed to walk free after what he did to Trayvon Martin, then the legal system of the state of Florida has sent a very clear message to anyone who harbors a grudge against a fellow citizen, and that message is this: if you’ve got a grudge against somebody and want to take revenge, then all you need to do is strap on a concealed handgun and track your rival down, then antagonize him in whatever fashion it takes to get him to lunge at you in anger. And at that point you’re good to go: un-holster your sidearm and put a bullet through his heart. Claim self-defense and call it a day. We’ll meet at the bar when you’re done. Drinks are on me.
These are bleak times for anyone who harbors hope of a future for our nation beyond brutality, ignorance and selfishness. You can thank the demagoguery of politicians who play on our fears, and the greed of a gun lobby that, through astonishingly ill conceived suicide pacts posing as legitimate pieces of legislation, seems to be promoting the pernicious ideal of a nation in which only a fool would venture into the streets without carrying a firearm of some sort on his person. You can blame whomever you want. But it is plain to see that the victim of these laws, as much as Trayvon Martin, is civilized society itself.