I have absolutely no doubt that racism played a fatal role in Martin's murder, and I have absolutely no doubt that racism plays a persistent, vicious, destructive role in national politics and culture. Racism was woven into the fabric of our nation too early and for too long for it to disappear in a decade or even a century. Not until my parent's generation and my generation are dead and gone will the United States begin to reap the full rewards of the work of abolitionists, civil rights workers, freedom riders, and the other Americans who have planned, marched, litigated, and sacrificed their safety and lives. But racism is not the aspect of Trayvon Martin's murder that disturbs me the most.
Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law emboldened George Zimmerman to track and murder Trayvon Martin, and provided the Sanford police department with an excuse not to even charge or arrest Zimmerman. Reverend Al Sharpton is quoted in the New York Times as saying that “People can’t take the law in their own hands,” but in Florida, and in other jurisdictions with similar laws, that's not true anymore. Together with the bizarre proliferation of concealed carry gun laws, these laws threaten the basic structure of our criminal justice system and our society.
The Florida law is written in such a way that murderers and assailants can justify their actions on the basis of their feelings. Forget evidence, forget eyewitnesses, forget histories of racism or violence – if someone claims that they felt threatened (as Zimmerman has claimed), no crime has been committed – at least, not in the eyes of the Florida legislature. This is an astounding development. Many news organizations referred to Zimmerman as a "neighborhood watch captain," as though this designation somehow conferred legitimacy. Claims of self-defense in Florida murders have risen dramatically, including mutual claims in gang wars. Is this where we want to go as a nation?
There are probably other Trayvon Martins out there – innocent men and women who have been murdered by overzealous or actively malevolent actors, egged on by a national tolerance for violence and a contempt for the principles of civilization. We are fortunate that the courageous and powerful voices of the African-American community have been raised to protest Martin's murder. But the threat of the Florida law, and similar laws in 20 other states, is independent of the evils of racism. It threatens all of us, regardless of our skin color or belief system. The fact that these laws provide a cover for racists is obvious. What's less obvious is that they provide cover for much, much more.
Repeal the Florida law, now. Repeal all the Stand Your Ground laws, now. For that matter, repeal all the concealed carry laws, and all the other legal aberrations that celebrate the right of the individual to substitute his emotions and pathologies for the rule of law and the common good. Human beings will always do bad things, but we shouldn't be giving them legal and moral cover.
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