My wife is one of the most intelligent people I know, so when she speaks about a topic, I tend to listen. It’s only fair because after two decades of marriage I tend to ignore everything else she says. When George Zimmerman appeared at his bail hearing, she walked past the sofa and said, “You don’t sympathize with that guy, do you?” I said that I’m not sure what happened the night he confronted Trayvon Martin, but that it would be up to the Court to determine that. This didn’t please her in the least, and her normally sharp mind hid behind an emotional statement. “Imagine that was your son he shot,” she said. I said that wasn’t a fair way to judge Zimmerman’s guilt or innocence. “Imagine that Zimmerman was your son accused of killing someone in cold blood when he was protecting himself.” Feeling the moment escalate I dialed back by saying that if he was indeed guilty of gunning down Martin in cold blood, he deserved a lengthy term in prison, but if he was innocent, he deserved freedom.
As I told my wife, I honestly don’t know what happened that night. When the story broke there was bipartisan outrage. I remember watching Fox News anchor Shepherd Smith have a meltdown as he referred to 17 year old Martin as a child and spoke scathingly of Zimmerman. Skittles candy was mentioned so often it sounded as if Martin was a modern-day Hansel and Zimmerman was a pistol packing Old Witch. In the heat of the moment there weren’t conservatives and liberals there were only parents, and losing a child is the stuff of nightmares that wake us up screaming and chill our blood whenever a story breaks of a child killed, especially one near the age of our own. Years ago we lost sleep over the Grossberg-Peterson baby murdered in Delaware, a baby only a few weeks younger than our own. In the years since other children have been killed in accidents or murdered, and their deaths, even to complete strangers like us, were slaps to the face, reminders of our own blessing and luck. The experience of loving a child trumps political ideology. Politics are petty and meaningless when compared to the life of a child.
But past events have taught me to question initial reports, or preferably, to avoid them when possible because they are usually wrong. It takes time for the signal of the truth to be discerned through the noise, and the more high profile the case, the noisier environment the signal hides in. In some cases, such as the Jon Binet Ramsey murder the signal is overwhelmed and the truth is never known.
What happened that night has become a screen for people to project their own biases and fears thanks to the politicization of the murder by the Obama administration, the Justice Department, and race-baiter Al Sharpton. These entities have raised Martin’s death up to the status of icon for their own political gain, and their opponents have begun to do the same. Gun rights supporters initially left Zimmerman alone to take the heat of his shooting Martin, saying that Florida’s “stand your ground” self-defense law didn’t apply because the 9-11 dispatcher suggested Zimmerman avoid confronting Martin. But as gun control advocates began using the shooting as evidence to support the rollback of such laws, they pushed gun rights advocates to take the opposite position, providing at least some support for Zimmerman albeit reluctantly at first.
Coming to gun ownership later in life I am fully aware of the arguments on both sides of the gun issue. “I think he is just a vigilante,” the wife said, and she might be right. Carrying a loaded weapon does provide a measure of power, and that power might cloud judgement and embolden some to cross the line between self-protection to armed aggression. In most cases that line is clear, and in the cases that it’s not, any decent CCW class can provide needed clarity. As one firearms instructor once told me, “Every bullet comes with a lawyer attached,” so gun owners must be more responsible than those who don’t own guns when it comes to the law and know it to the letter. Responsible gun owners also understand that carrying and firing a gun is a last resort. It is the last option when all other options have been tried and none others remain. Guns have life changing consequences, for people at both ends of the barrel, and gun owners must exercise a level of judgement that they know will have to stand the scrutiny of police, prosecutors, judges and juries and ultimately one’s conscience.
None of us was there that night, but the question remains: Did carrying a gun cloud Zimmerman’s judgement? I have been in dangerous situations both in front of the gun and behind it. In the latter case I was with a desperate stranger who claimed to have survived an horrific ordeal, and the guns provided the only protection available in the creeping minutes until the police arrived. Both instances have taught me keeping a clear head in the midst of a traumatic experience where the outcome is unknown is a challenge requiring a tremendous effort of willpower and focus. It’s easy for people to judge when they already know the outcome of an event; it’s much more difficult when you are in the middle of the event, have little or no information to base your decisions on, the police are nowhere around and it’s dark.
Zimmerman needs this trial almost as much as the Martin family does. Perhaps everyone does. We need to learn exactly what happened that night, to put ourselves in Zimmerman’s – and Martin’s – shoes, and determine exactly how and why a 17 year old kid’s life ended. But unfortunately the echoes of that night will not end with a verdict. If Zimmerman is convicted many will think he was railroaded by an administration keen to please its minority base and a special prosecutor doing its bidding. If he is acquitted, many will believe that he got away with murder, adding Martin to the long list of innocents killed by whites over the centuries abetted by a judicial system that is unfair to minorities. Zimmerman has already been judged guilty by many and innocent by others. The verdict will only confirm their beliefs in the fairness/unfairness of the System, it will not change them. As I told my wife as I watched his bail hearing, I am going to try to keep an open mind about his guilt or innocence, but it won’t be easy, I doubt it will be popular, and it may not even be possible.
Cross posted at The Moderate Voice.