In George Zimmerman’s America, Murder is Now a Tactic
Thirty years ago, Ronald Reagan proposed the Strategic Defence Initiative, a new missile defence system. Nicknamed ‘Star Wars’, the programme would have created a near impenetrable missile shield, protecting the US from Soviet bombs and keeping Americans safe. The problem with this ostensibly defensive programme is what it means offensively, namely that it removes the element of deterrence. If the United States has no reason to fear retaliation, why not strike first? Three decades on, we are witnessing the same principle on a smaller scale with the Stand Your Ground law, removing the fear of consequences from the act of murder. This law, versions of which can be found in more than thirty states, was George Zimmerman’s missile shield. It is why he walks free after admitting killing a teenager.
The basic facts of the case are well known. Neighbourhood Watch volunteer George Zimmerman saw Trayvon Martin, a young black male in a hoodie walking through the gated community in which Trayvon’s father’s fiancee lived. Ignoring a police dispatcher’s orders, Zimmerman followed him. There was a struggle, and Zimmerman shot the unarmed 17 year old through the heart. 44 days later he was arrested, and sixteen months later, he was found not guilty.
In court the lawyers argued over who was on top of whom, who threw the first punch and whose screams were heard on a tape. In essence though, none of this was needed, because the Stand Your Ground law permits lethal force if the person ‘reasonably believes’ it was necessary to protect their own life or prevent a forcible felony. This removes objectivity and the principle of legitimate self-defence and replaces them with the personal irrational fears and prejudices of the average gun-wielding American citizen.
It was the personal irrational fears and prejudices of George Zimmerman that killed Trayvon Martin, as surely as the bullet did. This is not to say that Zimmerman was fuelled by a violent, racist desire to murder a black man based only on his skin colour, but rather that he saw a black face encircled by a hooded top and immediately thought: ‘criminal’.
Because of this, Zimmerman probably did fear for his life. In the same way that some people are driven to cross the street, grip their handbags or lock their car doors when they see a black man in a hooded top at night. Because it is engrained in the subconscious of a large number of people that young black males are danger.
This is why the inconsistencies and implausibilities in Zimmerman’s account mattered little in the end. This is why it mattered little that DNA evidence contradicted much of Zimmerman’s story. This is why it didn’t matter that Zimmerman initiated the confrontation, or that he held a concealed Tec-9, while Trayvon had only a packet of Skittles. In the end, all that mattered was that this jury, none of whom were black, believed that in Zimmerman’s mind this unarmed teenager constituted a genuine threat to his life.
By giving such leniency to killers like Zimmerman, the Stand Your Ground law has removed the element of deterrence from confrontation. While the ‘Star Wars’ programme would have removed the deterring factor of Soviet bombs, Stand Your Ground removes the deterring factor of jail, allowing people like Zimmerman (who was fully aware of the intricacies of that law) to pick fights, knowing that they have a lethal option in reserve. If there were no eyewitnesses, it is very difficult to prove the defendant did not fear for his life; and if the victim was black it is easy to convince a jury that he did.
It cannot be overstated what an effect the Stand Your Ground law has when it is combined with latent racism. It turns being black after dark into a potential death sentence, because it tells those who fear people of colour that they can fire their gun when they begin to feel uneasy. If then the case actually ever does go to court, the jury will understand. And, as with George Zimmerman, the state will hand them back their weapon.
One of the most chilling elements of the Zimmerman verdict is the horrible implication that, if Trayvon had killed George Zimmerman, legally he probably should have walked free too. Stalked by an armed man who had shown hostility and ignored police instructions to stay away, it appears that it was well within his rights under Florida law to kill George Zimmerman. If he had, then under the terms of the Stand Your Ground law, he should then have walked free. Alive.
It is an awful state of affairs when one can ever write the sentence ‘he should have killed him’, not out of anger or hyperbole, but out of calm, rational logic. Unfortunately this is the terrifying reality of a law that demands you shoot first and ask questions later. Together with the Zimmerman verdict, it has created an America in which potential killers need not fear retribution, in which it makes simple logical sense to kill anyone who starts a confrontation, and in which taking another human being’s life is no longer a dreadful, unthinkable matter of last resort.