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Blue The Nation | August 29, 2014

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Why George Zimmerman Got Away With It

Why George Zimmerman Got Away With It
Jonathan Nathan

There will be anger. There will be rage. There may be riots, and there may be deaths. George Zimmerman is not guilty under the laws of this country or the state of Florida. Note that I do not say “he was found not guilty.” He is not guilty under the law. And that’s because the law is inadequate.

The problem, ultimately, was not the controversial “Stand Your Ground” law. While that law is insane and should be repealed as soon as possible, and while it certainly didn’t help matters, it was not what allowed Zimmerman to get away with killing a child. What did? The simple fact that there were no eyewitnesses and no physical evidence conclusive enough to convict a man of murder, or even manslaughter. We live in a nation of laws and some of the most important ones establish very high standards for criminal convictions. It is right that this is the case.

But while George Zimmerman is not guilty, he is obviously not innocent either. That can hardly be disputed, and anyone who does so needs to seriously re-examine his or her personal prejudices and biases. And I don’t just mean about race. I mean about age. I mean about gun rights and gun control. I mean about various subcultural differences. If you don’t think George Zimmerman and his profoundly stupid choices are the direct and sole cause of the death of Trayvon Martin, you are wrong and you need to take a look inside yourself.

The reason this is true does not even have to be about race. There are, of course, racial dimensions to this crime, but if you don’t buy that, you don’t have to. Let’s pretend that George Zimmerman did not have a track record of using offensive language to refer to young black men, including on the phone, referring to Martin, with the police, the very night the young man was killed. Let’s ignore that. Let’s pretend that he had every legitimate reason to be suspicious of Martin. For the sake of argument, we’ll concede all of that.

Why didn’t he stop following the kid when the police told him to?

Zimmerman claims he had turned around to go back to his vehicle, but even the defense’s own experts ultimately admitted that this part of his story was basically impossible, based on the location of the struggle and various other elements of the crime scene. The facts on the ground, whatever else they may say, clearly prove that Zimmerman kept following Martin after the police told him to stop and wait. He decided to be a macho cowboy.

If Zimmerman stops following Martin, nobody dies that night. And isn’t that the best possible outcome? If this unidentified young man does turn out to be some kind of criminal, the cops will find him–if he even sticks around, which is unlikely, because he clearly knew he was being followed–and if he doesn’t turn out to be a criminal, no harm no foul.

Again: If Zimmerman stops following Martin, nobody dies that night.

That is responsibility. That is causation. And Zimmerman, carrying a loaded firearm as he was, had to be aware that choosing to disobey a direct instruction from the police and pursuing a confrontation carried with it the risk of a death, either his own or his quarry’s. So if I decide to run through the house with scissors, knowing full well I may stumble and seriously injure myself if I do, how can I not be responsible for an injury if it occurs? Obviously it might not occur, just as Zimmerman’s actions could conceivably not have ended with him shooting a child to death. But if it does, I have no one to blame but myself. I entered into a situation I knew could cause a certain outcome, and that outcome occurred. My fault.

The problem is that the law does not agree with me here. A case could conceivably have been made for involuntary manslaughter or reckless endangerment, but such a case would have been a bit of a stretch and would presumably have ruled out a case for murder or voluntary manslaughter.

The law does not work. It is not broken, but it has a serious deficiency. George Zimmerman got away with killing a child. It doesn’t matter if Martin struck first. It doesn’t matter if Zimmerman truly believed he was in danger and therefore fired his weapon in self-defense. These things do not matter because the situation only presented itself because of Zimmerman’s stupid cowboy machismo. If you create a situation where a death is not only possible but highly so, to the point of almost being probable, there must be some kind of accountability. In the laws presently on the books, there is no such accountability.

“Stand Your Ground” is a terrible idea. It can, should, and will be repealed. “The Castle Doctrine” will probably follow it sometime in the next decade or two, as will the law that allowed a Texas man to murder a woman for not having sex with him. But those laws do not cause the toxic, dangerous, and deadly cowboy culture that leads people to do something like what Zimmerman did. They exist because of that culture. They validate and justify it. Simply getting rid of them will not stop future George Zimmermans, nor will they close the current hole in the law.

We must not merely seek to eliminate the legal structures that protect the cowboy culture. We must also seek to create new legal structures that punish it. There should have been a law in place that would have punished Zimmerman for pursuing Martin with a loaded firearm even if he hadn’t ended up killing the kid. The very act of creating that situation should have been a crime.

We, as Americans, don’t like to think this way. We don’t like to think that actions have consequences, that nothing happens in a vacuum. We don’t like to think that a small business goes under because Wal-Mart came into town and lowballed their prices. We don’t like to think that people lose their jobs and homes and assets because of something someone on Wall Street did. We don’t like to think that people turn to a life of crime because of circumstances they couldn’t control. We don’t like to think that most criminals are not evil but desperate. And while we like to think that everything happens for a reason, we do not like to think that the reason might be someone else’s wickedness or stupidity.

We are afraid to confront the real world. The real world is one in which things are so messed up because we keep allowing them to be messed up, because we are allowed to do every cruel, evil, foolish thing we want to do, all in the name of freedom and liberty, and if it causes something bad to happen, whether to ourselves or to others, it’s not our fault.

But we need to move past that. We cannot fail to learn a lesson from this tragedy. Every action has many consequences. It is time that the people who commit those actions are held accountable for the consequences. If you wreak havoc on the environment, you pay for every bad thing that happens due to global warming. If your company does business with factories in the developing world that don’t pay their workers a living wage or guarantee their safety, you get prosecuted in this country.

And if you follow a kid into the dark night, armed with a loaded firearm, having been told by the police not to do so, you pay the price for shooting him dead.

Other commentators can and will talk about the race issues in this case. That’s not what’s on my mind today. All I can think of is that I live in a culture which believes a person should be able to do whatever he or she wants to do, damn the consequences until someone gets hurt or killed, but never mind that those consequences could easily have been avoided. I live in a nation in which every single state allows people to walk around carrying loaded weapons. I live in a society which values the right of those gun owners to follow anyone they deem suspicious enough to warrant it.

I’m not black. I’m not brown. I’m a straight white male in my twenties. But I am afraid for my life.