The concept of legitimate self-defense has been turned on its head and is now a caricature of itself. In the Zimmerman case, it has morphed into the kind of lawlessness conservatives used to decry.
“…And if I die in Raleigh at least I will die free…”
-Old Crow Medicine Show
A black teenager, Trayvon Martin, is accosted while walking home. He is guilty of no crime, suspected of no crime. He has every reason to be where he is. He does, however, look “suspicious” to a mania-driven neighborhood “watchman” with a Rambo fantasy. (What exactly looked “suspicious” was never explained.) This gun-toting Good Neighbor, George Zimmerman, has decided there will be a confrontation if he has to instigate it himself. Zimmerman stalks the teen for ten minutes—in a car and then on foot—and shoots him square in the chest when Martin finally reacts. The killer is hailed a hero, the teen is relegated to the ranks of all the other “suspicious” black men we are lucky to be rid of. No harm, no foul.
What about the good-hearted neighbor with such benevolent purity of intention? His history reveals a credible accusation by a relative of sexual abuse; documented domestic violence with an ex-fiancee; and documented harassment and racist taunts toward a former co-worker who was so happy when Zimmerman left his job he threw a party. Zimmerman also has a record of battery on a police officer and resisting arrest. We are asked to believe that a man of such demonstrably low character would then make the judicious decision that it was necessary to kill an unarmed teenager because of an “imminent threat.” It doesn’t pass the smell test.
The concept of legitimate self-defense has been turned on its head and is now a caricature of itself. In the Zimmerman case, it has morphed into the kind of lawlessness conservatives used to decry. This new paradigm permits one individual to forcibly engage another in a public venue—to restrain, intimidate, and harass him—until a physical altercation finally occurs and it becomes “necessary” to kill. This new paradigm manifestly declares,”You are not free. You must assent–or prove why you shouldn’t.” Failure to comply is now a reason to be killed.
Anyone who professes to care about freedom should be mightily disturbed. Every presumption in this case was given to one side. Every benefit of the doubt was given to one man-the man throwing his weight around, the one intent on inciting a confrontation, the man who believed his superior status justified his aggression. Why? Because his omniscience told him another free citizen looked “suspicious.”
In the Zimmerman school of constitutional law, looking “suspicious” is reason to suspend probably cause and get straight to the business of detaining another human being by force, just because you feel like it. You don’t even have to be a cop. And God forbid the person being harassed should react in any significant way. It may be the last thing he ever does.
Trayvon Martin himself was operating under a faulty presumption: that he had the same rights as any other law-abiding citizen. That he had the right to keep walking, to direct his own movement, to determine his own associations. That he had the right to defend his personal space against hostile intrusion. That he had autonomy over his own person, the right to refuse communication with an unidentified stranger without having to explain himself. That he had the autonomy we’re supposed to grant even tall, black teenagers wearing hoodies, or tattoed counterculturists with eight earrings in one ear, or anti-social old men in dirty shirts who just want to be left alone. He was wrong.
George Zimmerman is not behind bars, but he will never be free. Poetic justice for a man who, in his colossal hubris, appointed himself the last and final arbiter of another man’s liberties.