Vigilantism's Return to America

Several weeks ago, George Zimmerman, the man acquitted of murder in the shooting death of an unarmed teenager, Trayvon Martin, made an appearance at a Florida gun show as the guest of honor. Zimmerman was invited by the gun show’s organizer, who had supported Zimmerman at his trial, to help promote the event by signing autographs. The appalling reaction of several of my right-wing acquaintances after I complained on Facebook about the celebration of Zimmerman as a hero prompted me to write this post.

These are the basic facts of the case as I understand them: Trayvon Martin was doing nothing wrong, walking home from a convenience store, when he was stalked by neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman, who was suspicious that Martin could be a burglar. Rather than waiting for the police to handle the situation, as is the duty of a neighborhood watchman, and contrary to the directives of the 911 operator with whom Zimmerman spoke, Zimmerman got out of his car and confronted Martin. We may never know who threw the first punch, but it should not matter. Even if it was Martin, doesn’t an unarmed kid have the right to defend himself from a stalker? If George’s plea in his trial was that he shot Martin in self-defense, what about the right to self-defense for an unarmed teen who was stalked by an over-zealous neighborhood watchman, while walking home in the dark?

I do not believe the killing merited a first-degree murder charge since the crime was not premeditated, but it certainly warranted manslaughter. Manslaughter is defined as “the unjustifiable, inexcusable, and intentional killing of a human being without deliberation, premeditation, and malice... [or] the unlawful killing of a human being without any deliberation, which may be involuntary, in the commission of a lawful act without due caution and circumspection.” That sounds like a decent description of Zimmerman’s crime. While the jury had the option to convict on manslaughter, they ultimately chose not to. I am no legal expert, but I cannot reconcile the verdict with my understanding of manslaughter and the basic facts of the case. The Zimmerman verdict is as appalling to me as the OJ Simpson verdict.

Some of the Zimmerman jurors reported disappointment with the outcome of the trial, but complained about being constrained by Florida law. After the trial, one of the jurors stated, “George Zimmerman got away with murder. But you can’t get away from God. And at the end of the day, [Zimmerman is] going to have a lot of questions and answers he has to deal with... As much as we were trying to find this man guilty... they give you a booklet that basically tells you the truth, and the truth is that there was nothing that we could do about it.”

Zimmerman may not be a cold-blooded murderer, but he is a killer. While he may not have had malice aforethought, Zimmerman stalked an innocent and unarmed teen in the dark, started a confrontation, and, after an altercation broke out, he shot him. I have been perplexed by the reaction of many conservatives to the Trayvon Martin killing, even before the case went to trial. In the run up to the trial, Zimmerman became a celebrity of sorts to some right-wing Americans. Pundits like Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh took to Zimmeran’s defense and rallied their followers to the cause. Did they do this simply in spite of President Obama, who expressed sympathy for Trayvon Martin and shared his frustration with the way the local police handled the case? Was this the right’s deeply cynical way of lashing out against a mainstream media they so much despise, after the media helped turn the case into a national issue? I cannot comprehend what motivated so many conservatives to politicize the case and to support Zimmerman.

Even if you feel Zimmerman indeed acted in self-defense and was rightly acquitted, why would you celebrate him as a hero? What kind of person would want Zimmerman’s autograph? He did not kill a burglar, a pedophile, or a terrorist. He killed an unarmed teenager who was minding his own business while walking home from a convenience store. Zimmerman’s appearance as a prop to drive sales at a gun show is further evidence of a segment of our society becoming unhinged. As Trayvon Martin’s father observed- “they love their guns more than our sons.”

The Trayvon Martin tragedy is just one in a series of cases in Florida where contorted notions of self-defense have ended in tragedy. In January, a retired police officer carrying a concealed firearm shot and killed an unarmed man at a movie theater after the victim allegedly threw popcorn at the retired officer. The officer had harassed the victim who was sending text messages to his daughter’s babysitter during the film previews. Another armed citizen, Michael Dunn, shot and killed a black teenager, Jordan Davis, at a gas station in November 2012 after a disagreement over loud music. Dunn, who claimed he was acting in self-defense, alleged that Davis had pulled out a gun and was trying to shoot him. However, Davis and his friends were unarmed.

I am not saying that most gun owners are extremists who condone people like Zimmerman and Dunn. Most American gun owners are law-abiding citizens who are well within the mainstream on politics. But there is a growing radical segment of conservative gun activists who exemplify an expanding ugliness and lawlessness in American culture. Evidence of their presence is found in the Newtown Truther movement, whose adherents have even gone so far as to harass the families of the Sandy Hook massacre victims. This phenomenon is also found in armed supporters of the rebel rancher, Cliven Bundy, when they set up armed checkpoints on public roads near Bundy’s ranch.

I fear these kinds of slayings of innocents will become more commonplace as the gun lobby continues to urge more people to carry firearms and to advance laws that expand areas where individuals are allowed to carry guns, even while gaping loopholes continue to pervade our background check system. Just last month, Georgia, which already has one of the highest rates of gun violence in the country and some of the loosest gun regulations, passed a law that allows any gun owner to carry a firearm into a bar, and into most state and local government buildings. Common sense tells us that alcohol and firearms are a lethal combination.

I mourn Trayvon Martin’s death as I mourn any tragedy where innocents are killed. But I also mourn what is happening to our society, as well-organized extremists are confusing right and wrong, and endangering us all as they promote vigilantism.

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