Basic synopsis: a neighborhood watch captain follows a “suspicious” black teenager. Some sort of confrontation ensues, and the teen is shot dead in “self-defense”. A few weeks go by, and suddenly the story breaks out in the media and spreads across the nation. Why?
First, some more background.
Evidence against George Zimmerman, the captain, includes a 911 call in which he appears to stereotype black teenagers and ignore police instructions by following Trayvon Martin. Witnesses also claim to have heard a younger voice scream, and Trayvon’s girlfriend, who was on the phone with him at the time, said he has trying to get away.
Evidence for Zimmerman includes injuries he sustained during the confrontation, his testimony that he was attacked, and witnesses who say that Martin was on top of him during the fight.
There is so much we do not know. We do not seem to have much evidence other than Zimmerman’s testimony to determine whether Zimmerman initiated the conversation or the fight. We have very little about the moments between when Martin appeared to be on top of Zimmerman to when the fatal shot was fired. Zimmerman could be telling the truth. Maybe he was a bit overzealous and ending up angering Martin, who then attacked him. Maybe Zimmerman is simply guilty of a mistake: he thought his life was in danger when it was not. Or maybe this case really is what it first appeared to be: a vigilante killing an innocent child. What we do know is that a life was cut short, and people want to know why.
This case has gripped the nation, and there are three reasons for the public uproar.
First, emotion and compassion. Any time a child or teen dies, anguish for the family pours out from all who hear about it. It is human nature to imagine oneself in the same situation as those who are hurting. We feel the pain, and this pain soon turns to calls for action. Some of these demands have been reasonable: have a trial, hear the facts, make a decision. Some have turned ugly, with threats of violence and expressions of hate. Emotion is a powerful thing.
Some people are not as emotional, however. Even for these, the Trayvon Martin case has a tremendous impact. Personally, I am concerned with justice. I want to know what is right, and when something appears to be fundamentally wrong, I want justice done. Cases that are only emotional in scope have little substance to interest people focused on justice. However, this case seemed at least initially to be an example of a man committing a crime and getting away with it. Critics focused on Zimmerman, the actions of the police, and the Florida ‘Stand Your Ground” law.
Third, special interests soon weighed in. Civil rights groups mean well, but they do use stories for their own agendas. Jesse Jackson condemned the actions of Zimmerman and made Trayvon Martin an example of all racism in this nation. This case does have a racial element, but groups changed Trayvon’s death from an individual injustice to an indictment of our entire society. The media loves controversies, and so the story spread more widely than ever.
Emotion, love for justice, and special interests have fueled this media spectacle. Time will tell what justice means in this case, and if justice will be done. By the time this case is done, emotion and special interests will fill the public dialogue. I hope we have not lost sight of the facts of this case, and the pain felt by Martin’s family and by Zimmerman and those who know him.