It is worth remembering, the next time you see Trayvon Martin‘s parent’s on television, trying to explain their pleas for justice, that you are looking at human beings who, in the giant totem pole that mankind has constructed of Humans Who Have Suffered Terrible Losses, occupy a fairly high position.
The killing of Trayvon Martin is a classically American nightmare: a suburb somewhere, a dark night, a young black man on the streets, guns in the hands of people who imagine it will make them safer, calls to 911 that provide grim, brief, staccato evidence of a deadly, preventable encounter. And at the end of it all, a dead man, grieving parents, a police force and a city administration making mealy-mouthed responses. When we reach that stage, a sickening sense of deja vu strikes, for we have memorized the rest of the script: a little outrage that soon blows itself out, some protest marches, featuring as usual, some ‘leaders’ of the black community, bland, banal responses from the police force, and a meandering march toward ‘justice,’ which, more often than not, ends in miscarriage.
There is another, well-established trope as component of this recurring tragedy: character testimonials about the killer, about how he could not have been a ‘racist.’ But the fallacy in this sort of defense is in imagining that visible, overt racism must reside in the final cause we identify. But more often that not, the final pull of the trigger, as in this case, was merely the spearpoint of a weapon that had been aimed at Trayvon Martin’s head for a very long time. Zimmerman lives in a society infected by racism; when he finally shot Trayvon, he wasn’t acting alone; he was accompanied by anything and everything that has conspired to make it the case that young black men in this country are taking substantial risks when they venture out alone into a dark street. Zimmerman had been convinced, a long time ago, that the right way for him to assuage his fears of young black men was to work it out, dramatically, with a gun. He would take revenge for all the fear that been visited on him in the past. In his fatal decision to pursue Trayvon with a deadly weapon, Zimmerman was the final instantiation of a set of social forces that had been acting around, and on him, for a very long time.
In Chapter 2 of Law and Literature, Richard Posner suggests that an entire genre of literature can be read as making the case that the rule of law should replace social systems of revenge. With the Stand Your Ground law, the vigilantism it has sparked, and with the relentless machinations of the NRA to keep firearms in the hands of one and all, it is clear we have pulled off a rather remarkable conjuring trick: we have written violence and revenge back into the law. Or to put it in more simple terms, we have written back ‘taking the law into your own hands’ into the law. Zimmerman was merely the Executive Branch of this legal system.