Friday, March 23, 2012

Blind Justice

I don’t like the idea of a special category of “hate crimes”. To me, a crime is a crime; murder is murder. The victim is still dead. Is the shooter of Trayvon Martin guilty of a hate crime? That’s irrelevant. An innocent boy walking down the street was stalked and shot to death. All that should matter is whether it can be proved the shooting was premeditated, or committed with intent to kill the victim.

There is strong evidence of premeditation when a self-styled vigilante prowls the streets armed with a weapon looking for trouble. Sometimes trouble is not hard to find, as Bernhard Goetz could attest. The media dubbed the 37-year-old self-employed electrical engineer “The New York Subway Vigilante” in 1984, after he pulled out a .38 caliber Smith & Wesson revolver from beneath his windbreaker and gunned down four black teens in a subway car who had demanded he give them money. But Goetz’s circumstances  differed from Zimmerman’s. Bernhard Goetz was a thin, bespectacled man, whereas George Zommerman was a huskier, younger man who did not wear glasses. Goetz was minding his own business, sitting on the subway, when he was accosted by four black teenagers; Zimmerman proactively chose to patrol the streets in search of “suspicious” individuals. Goetz had been mugged and injured three years earlier by a teen gang at a subway station and presumably had a legitimate fear for his safety at subway stations. As for premeditation, Goetz even confessed to police his intent was “to murder them, to hurt them, to make them suffer,” and that he had coldly and methodically fired a second round into one of the wounded youths, left paralyzed and brain damaged by the shooting. Nonetheless, Goetz was acquited on 17 counts of attempted murder and assault.

But stalking an innocent boy, chasing him down in contravention of police instructions, and allegedly shooting him is another matter. The self defense claim is bogus. Zimmerman,  a 28-year-old adult, weighed at least 30 pounds more than the 140 lb. 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. Zimmerman could have physically overpowered him without a gun; or, more sensibly, he could have driven away in his car or waited for the police to arrive, as instructed. Instead, he chose to stalk the boy, chase him, and shoot him. That is not self defense.

Depending on the facts presented at trial, and the shooter’s mens rae (his intent and state of mind at the time he committed the act), such an act might be manslaughter, premeditated first degree murder, or felony first degree murder (aggravated stalking being the underlying felony). Much has been made in the media reports of Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, which states a person who is attacked has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he  reasonably believes it necessary to prevent death or great bodily harm or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony. Bottom line: it doesn't apply here. Zimmerman was not attacked by Martin; in fact, it appears the other way around, seeing as Zimmerman is the one with the gun and Martin is the one with the bullet hole. Zimmerman was not attacked; he left the safety of his car, stalked an innocent boy, and allegedly shot the unarmed child. He had no reasonable belief he was in danger of death or bodily harm— he was an adult and physically bigger than the unarmed, skinny child, who was attempting to flee, not attack. Nor had Martin committed a felony, nor was there any indication he intended to; he was too busy running for his life. The Stand Your Ground law is a red herring. It is irrelevant to the facts of the case and cannot serve as a defense.

But let’s play devil’s advocate. Let’s assume Zimmerman is a citizen concerned about crime in his neighborhood. Maybe there’s a lot of crime in Sanford, I don’t know, although presumably a gated community is safer than an open one. The police response time – one minute in this case – is outstanding, which should make it a safer community. Zimmerman became involved in his Neighborhood Watch. That’s commendable. Most people don’t get involved in their communities. However, it is unclear from the reports if this was an organized Watch program, if it was police-sanctioned, or if it had any members other than Zimmerman. Over the past 15 months, George Zimmerman made 46 calls to Sanford police to report “suspicious” individuals. Maybe he was overzealous in his role as Junior G-man, or perhaps he was paranoid about crime. If there had been break-ins or muggings in his neighborhood (it is unknown if there were any in his gated community, but Sanford as a whole is ranked as less safe than 97% of other cities), then he might have had good reason to make so many reports. Actually, that is what he was supposed to do if he saw suspicious activity – call the police and let the professionals handle it. Zimmerman did the right thing on the first 45 calls. It was the last call, when he disobeyed police instructions not to pursue Trayvon Martin, when he ran after the boy with a loaded 9mm gun, when he cornered the unarmed boy and allegedly shot and killed him—that was when the aura of civic duty receded and the issue of premeditation reared its head. Was George Zimmerman roaming the streets, armed and ready, looking for someone to shoot?

Maybe race was an issue with Zimmerman. It almost certainly was with the Sanford police department. I cannot imagine a black man driving around with a 9mm gun, stalking a white child on the street, chasing him down, shooting the unarmed white boy, and not being arrested, let alone charged by police. No way. I cannot picture police letting a black man leave the scene of the killing of a white child WITH HIS GUN, for Pete's sake!

I can almost understand Zimmerman. Perhaps he was paranoid, especially if there had been crimes committed in the neighborhood; delusional, imaging himself a vigilante protecting his neighborhood; suspicious of someone who looked out of place in a non-black community. Maybe his judgment was impaired by drugs or alcohol (of course, we’ll never know, since police failed to test him at the scene). But even viewing Zimmerman in the most favorable light, and I believe it to be artificial lighting at that, there is no way I can excuse the conduct of the Sanford police department. Zimmerman should have been arrested, charged, and given the opportunity to justify his actions before a jury, who could then determine his culpability, if any.

That said, we need to place a value on human life, irrespective of color or nationality. It does not matter what color Trayvon Martin was. He was a child and his killing was wrong. It doesn't matter that Sgt. Robert Bales is a white American and that the nine children he brutally murdered were Afghans. Killing children is wrong; it is an abomination, and it does not matter if they are white or black, American or Afghan. It is equally irrelevant if their killer bears more resemblance to us than do their victims. I don’t want to hear Bales’ Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or insanity defense. He murdered babies, children, women and then dragged the bodies together and set fire to them. I don’t care that he’s an American soldier and his victims were “just foreigners”. His victims are no less people because they are not “one of us”. Nor is he immune from justice because he is “one of our boys”. Being a U.S. soldier doesn't cut any slack with me. I want him strung up by his testicles and flayed. And if you’re black and you think White America doesn't care when a black child is murdered, you’re wrong. Many of us do care. The sad part is the institutional bias responsible for a double standard that would put a black shooter of a white child on death row, but let a white shooter of a black child walk away – uncharged with any crime.

This should not be viewed as a hate crime. All crimes are hate crimes. No one robs or murders you because they like you. But perpetrators and victims of crimes should be treated without regard to color or nationality (or religion, gender, or sexual preference). The statue of Lady Justice wears a blindfold because justice must be dispensed objectively and impartially, without regard to the identity of the parties.

Sadly, prejudice is a fact of life, and a varying degree of bias is ingrained in all of us. Our football team is better than the other team; our country is better than any other (ever notice in news reports, how a ship sinks killing 300 passengers and five Americans – because obviously, the five American lives are valued more than 300 foreigners); our religion is better than the others because, after all, it is the real one and they can’t all be right; and of course, our race is first among equals. There is a famous All in the Family episode where Archie Bunker is trapped in an elevator with a Puerto Rican man, his pregnant wife, and a well-dressed, erudite and articulate black man. The blue-collar Archie makes a comment to the Puerto Rican, who reminds Archie, Puerto Rico is part of the U.S. and “I’m an American citizen, equal to you.” Archie pouts and, pointing to the black man, replies “Equal to me? You ain’t even equal to him!” The point being, while America may be the great melting pot, there exists a societal class pecking order, with WASPs at the top. Today it is politically incorrect to speak of it, but I grew up in a town where Jews were barred from certain clubs and blacks could not swim in the public swimming pool.

This social order is still institutionalized. “Driving While Black” is a valid reason in many white neighborhoods for a black driver to be pulled over and questioned by police. In my short story “Obama Nation”, I open in a future society dominated by blacks where a white man rushes past an opulent black neighborhood, fearful some resident might phone the police to report a “suspicious white man” in their  suburban neighborhood. It was classic role reversal, just as I cannot imagine a black man driving around with a 9mm gun, stalking a white child on the street, chasing him down, shooting the unarmed white boy, and not being arrested, let alone charged by police.   


  1. I've noticed that "Obama Nation", of all your stories, isn't available to read in the U.S. Curious as to why that is?

    1. Hi Joseph. None of the eStorybooks are geolocation specific, so in other words, a title is either available everywhere (including the US) or no longer available anywhere.

      The eStorybooks are being gradually phased out. As of November 2015, A Ghost Story, Apotheosis; Bovine Love; Dreams of an Everyday Housewife; Fables; Lair of the Dragon; Lastima por el Lobo; Love at the Bank; Obama Nation; Red Meat; The Abuser; The Blood Rose; The Night I Met God, or An Angel, or A Time Traveler at Lindy's; and Two Tales from the Dreamscape have all been discontinued. All of the discontinued stories are still available in print in the Shards short story collection.

  2. Thank you for the information. I actually just purchased a copy of Shards. I look forward to reading all of the stories, as I am a big fan of speculative fiction.