More and more, I find myself mulling over the question posed by Rodney King in the wake of his horrific beating at the hands of the L.A.P.D. and the ensuing riots: “Can’t we all get along?”
Evidently, we can’t.
On Saturday, a jury in Florida acquitted George Zimmerman of second-degree murder in the killing of Trayvon Martin. As a recovering lawyer, I am not prepared to argue with the jury’s verdict; for one thing, I didn’t watch the trial, and for another, there are elements of a crime that must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt in order to justify a conviction. From the bits and pieces I did see, it appeared that the prosecution was struggling to prove Zimmerman had the requisite criminal intent.
But while it may be possible to absolve Zimmerman of legal liability for Martin’s death, his moral culpability—and what it tells us about human behavior in the presence of difference—is quite clear.
From all accounts, Zimmerman was one of those pathetic wanna-be macho types that women and gay men, especially, encounter all too frequently. He’d wanted to be a police officer, and had been rejected on more than one occasion—something for which we should all feel grateful. He evidently compensated by “packing heat” (feelings of inadequacy are an all-too-common reason for brandishing a firearm) and by participating in his neighborhood watch, where he could exercise an authority he did not otherwise possess.
In the television interviews that followed the shooting, he displayed an embarrassing self-righteousness. This was not an individual who appeared self-reflective, or even remorseful about taking the life of an unarmed teenager whom he had voluntarily stalked, despite being told by the police dispatcher to “go home and let us handle it.”
Zimmerman saw Martin as someone who “looked suspicious.” I think it is too facile to assume this was all about race, although it’s hard to believe that race did not play a role. Martin was dressed differently. He “didn’t belong” on the turf that Zimmerman evidently believed was his to protect. His difference and his very presence was a challenge. And so Zimmerman provoked an entirely unnecessary and ultimately deadly confrontation.
The parallels to attacks on gay men are striking.How many times has a homophobic attacker defended his resort to violence by insisting that he was “protecting himself” from an unwanted advance? How often have we seen one of these insecure bullies try to prove his manhood by provoking a confrontation?
Friends who work with victims of domestic violence tell much the same story. The abusive spouse (usually, but not always, a male) is typically emotionally-stunted and insecure, a George Zimmerman type trying desperately to prove to himself that he’s a big, macho man.
None of us will live long enough to see a society without these deeply flawed individuals. We could take steps to make them less dangerous, beginning with reasonable restrictions on gun ownership, and laws imposing significant financial liability on firearm misuse. (If the homeowner’s “watch” group that enabled Zimmerman’s vigilantism had to pay civil damages, such groups would get serious about vetting and training their members.) Given the current political climate, such measures are unlikely, to put it mildly.
We have a long way to go before we all “just get along.”