Saturday, March 24, 2012

Martin and Zimmerman

I'm suffering from opinion overload after reading so many comments about the Treyvon Martin killing.  It disturbs me to see everyone so ready to draw conclusions about a case in which a great deal remains unknown.  It's probably no different than what has always happened when information about an event gets disseminated, but it is much easier to see the effects now.

There are only two clear things about the case as far as I can tell.  One is that George Zimmerman should not have followed Trayvon Martin, and if he had not followed him, Martin would still be alive.  The second is that the police should have launched a formal investigation rather than just taking Zimmerman's word for it.

Beyond that, it is mostly speculation.  The key question is how Zimmerman and Martin ended up in a scuffle.  Zimmerman said he was ambushed, which seems unlikely to me, but I have no way of knowing what scenario actually played out.  I'm afraid that no one may be able to learn the truth at this point, although maybe some detectives will come up with evidence through forensic science that tells us more.

Everything else about the case is secondary.  People keep saying that it was not a crime for Martin to be walking in his own neighbourhood.  Fair enough, but it also wasn't a crime for Zimmerman to be on the watch for criminal activity.  Whether what he saw warranted his suspicions is an open question, but it doesn't really matter.  Whether he was confronting a teen returning home from 7-11 or a criminal casing a joint, he had an equal right to ask the person what he was doing there.

It is true that how he asked this question is material.  He may have been approaching Martin with the intention of having a conversation something like this:

"Hey, what's up?"
"Are you just out for an evening stroll?"
 "Just getting some snacks and heading home."
"Okay, man, be safe."

That might be a totally unrealistic interpretation of what Zimmerman was up to.  Perhaps his past experience encounters with people he suspected would shed some light on it.  Maybe he was going to run up to Martin and say, "What the @$%^ are you doing around here at night?"  Maybe words would be exchanged, threats made, and things would have turned ugly.  My point is that Zimmerman was not a priori wrong to notice Martin and to ask what he was up to, any more than Martin was wrong to be out at night buying snacks.  He was wrong if, and only if, he approached Martin in an aggressive manner and precipitated a confrontation, which may very well have been the case judging from his call to police.  But it is not certain, based at least on what I know.
I keep reading about how Zimmerman is paranoid, psychotic, or other terms.  I'm not going to try to be an armchair psychologist, but we should admit that there have been numerous crimes in his neighbourhood and he was trying to stop them.  He was overzealous in pursuing Martin and he was perhaps overzealous in his watch activities in general, but he had a real reason to be concerned.  Some cities have curfews for teenagers.  Sanford didn't, but the fact that curfews exist indicates that there is an inherent concern about young people being out at night.

My point is that there is a big gap in our knowledge of what happened.  We know that Trayvon Martin was innocently walking home from the store.  We know that George Zimmerman was looking out for criminal activity, that he was frustrated with the amount of crime in the neighbourhood, and that he was too willing to try to do something about it himself.  We don't know how Zimmerman acted toward Martin, what made Martin run away, or how the two ended up fighting.  I will be the first to say that a gun law should not allow someone to pick a fight and then use it as an excuse to shoot someone; if that happened, Zimmerman is guilty of murder.  If his version of the story is true -- that Martin ambushed him -- then Zimmerman was acting in self-defense.  If, as seems likely, the truth is some shade between these options, the jury will have to sort out the responsibility.  No one can be sure from what has been reported that events happened one way or the other.

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