Time for more than hair-trigger reactions

It’s taken former President Bill Clinton to say one of the few sensible things about the shooting in Florida more than a month ago of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.

Clinton’s point: it is irrelevant whatever kind of person Martin was to the facts most pertinent to the matter — he was unarmed, and doing nothing more than walking home from a convenience store, talking to his girlfriend on his cell phone and worrying aloud to her about a man, George Zimmerman, who, he had observed, was following him.

Says Clinton: it is irrelevant that Martin was troubled, that he had had some skirmishes with authorities, that he wore a hoodie, or that he was black.

It was Zimmerman who instigated the incident; Zimmerman who concluded that Martin looked suspicious, Zimmerman who declined to accept the advice of Sanford, Fla., police and instead took it upon himself to tail Martin.

But, we could note, these kinds of mistakes of judgment and character are made all the time, and even by trained police. But Zimmerman could have stood down, as per the recommendation — not instruction — of a police dispatcher, and allowed police to handle the matter. Most likely, if he had, Martin would have made it home safely, the police would have concluded he was doing nothing more than meandering slowly home on a rainy night.

As I’ve thought about this tragedy between this boy and man, I’m reminded of an incident that occurred on Dec. 22, 1984, between a mousy Greenwich Village electronics developer and four young men carrying only screwdrivers on a New York subway train.

When the men, all black, approached Bernard Goetz, a onetime victim of a street assault, demanding $5, Goetz stood up and in a hail of four bullets shot each of them, becoming both a national celebrity and a hero to New Yorkers fed up with the country’s rising violent crime rate.

It was the fifth bullet, however, that sullied Goetz’s courageous response. Seeing that one of his assailants appeared uninjured, Goetz fired another round, severing the youth’s spinal column and paralyzing him for life. The fifth bullet sat apart from the fourth the way reason distinguishes itself from base emotionalism — it seemed to those who studied the matter that in that instant Goetz had finally come to his senses, and had crossed over from being prey to predator.

If Zimmerman’s statements are to be believed, as he was returning to his car he was confronted by Martin, who had decided it was time to give the neighborhood watchman a good thumping for frightening him. If true, it was his Goetz moment, and it cost him his life.

Perhaps it was then that Zimmerman brandished his gun, then that Martin sought to take control of it for fear of his life, then that Zimmerman pulled the trigger, fearful his beating would become something more.

According to news reports, Zimmerman told police that he believed one of the two men was going to die that night — it’s the likely basis for his resorting to the “Stand your ground” defense, which perhaps could only be applied if Zimmerman called off the chase but then was himself approached by Martin.

It’s unlikely though, that killing Zimmerman was anywhere on Martin’s mind — if he later did confront the 28-year-old, it seems most likely he was just going to teach Zimmerman a hard lesson, and was in the process of doing so, apparently, when Zimmerman concluded that his life was in danger and pulled out his gun, for which he had no permit to carry.

As I’ve read news stories that have chronicled the gathering storm on this incident, I’ve been surprised by those who’ve been ready to convict either this one or that one before all the hanging chads had been counted.

Neither Zimmerman nor Martin, nor police, are obviously in the wrong, despite our best attempts to lay blame at the feet of someone. Blame really resides with the presumption of the infallibility of the systems that we devise to bring order to our experience — shouldn’t the police dispatcher have been more direct? Indeed. Should Martin have not sought to confront Zimmerman? Of course. Should Zimmerman, acting as a neighborhood watchman, have been carrying a gun in the first place when not even Guardian Angels carry firearms? I don’t think so.

With that much blame to go around, it seems absurd to lull oneself into a binary world of absolute blame and innocence.

But the fact remains, Zimmerman had a gun, and if he hadn’t Martin would still be alive, and an outraged populace wouldn’t be calling for charges of murder against him.

It was about this time of year, five years ago, that Seung-Hui Cho went on a killing spree that left more than 30 people dead at Virginia Polytechnic Institute in Virginia. In response to the tragedy, some lawmakers, backed by the 6,000-member Virginia Citizens Defense League, climbed aboard a proposal that would have allowed college students to arm themselves and carry concealed weapons on campus, the thinking being that enough people armed will stop an armed gunman in his tracks and that Cho was emboldened to do what he did because he had entered what bill sponsor and Delegate Todd Gilbert called, “a gun-free zone.”

I thought such talk was lunacy.

I worried then that all it would take would be for one armed person, not quite sure what he might or might not be witnessing but wanting nevertheless to put his intrepidity to the test, to intercede with a weapon, resulting in what would have been a relatively otherwise innocuous situation spinning terribly out of control.

Sound familiar?


—Robert Snyder is the managing editor of the Spirit of Jefferson. He can be reached at editor@spiritofjefferson.com

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