I’ve spoken in metaphor in the past regarding a “lynch mob” mentality when I saw a group of people demanding this or that person’s proverbial head over some wrong they’d allegedly committed. I never thought I’d actually see it for real, not in this day and age.
On the night of 26 February, armed citizen George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin. Martin had been acting suspiciously in Zimmerman’s eyes and, acting in his capacity as a member of the neighborhood watch, Zimmerman was following Martin to observe his behavior. A physical confrontation broke out and Zimmerman fired his pistol, killing Martin. Zimmerman is claiming self-defense and the police who responded, after consultation with the local DA, declined to arrest Zimmerman.
That, ladies and gentlemen, is the sum total of the facts as they are currently known here at 10:00 am EST today. But that’s not stopping people from demanding Zimmerman’s arrest and conviction for murder – manslaughter, at least – and, in the case of the New Black Panther Party, issuing a $10,000 bounty asking for someone to “capture” George Zimmerman. TV pundits who huffily demanded everyone just hold their judgements when Maj. Nidal Hasan shot up Fort Hood and killed 13 people are confidently dismissing Zimmerman’s claims to self-defense while clearly lacking all the information and just as clearly reaching conclusions out of thin air.
George Will, a man I generally respect, went out on his limb on ABC this weekend saying, “Mr. Zimmerman says he was acting under this self-defense law, but he is said to have been recorded saying that he was in pursuit of the person. You cannot be in pursuit and acting in self-defense.” Not at the same time, no, but if you’re “in pursuit” of someone and break off only to be attacked by that same person as you’re attempting to leave the area, you are most certainly permitted to defend yourself. Was Will present at the event? Does he have information about the sequence of events that the rest of us don’t? Which was it: was Zimmerman actively pursuing Martin when he shot him or was he attacked by Martin, as other evidence suggests, and responded in his own defense. We don’t know – and that “we” includes Mr. Will. The investigation is ongoing and until we have the facts I would expect a respected journalist to refrain from reporting a conclusion.
Charles Blow of the New York Times has also made up his mind based on the “well, gee, I wouldn’t do that” test. In his column he confidently says that in order to accept Zimmerman’s story you’d “have to believe that Trayvon chose to attack a man who outweighed him by 100 pounds and who, according to the Sanford police, was wearing his gun in a holster. You have to believe that Trayvon chose to attack even though he was less than a hundred yards from the safety of the home where he was staying.” I honestly don’t know where these people come from these days where they consider that kind of size differential such an overwhelming impediment that no one would ever even consider attacking a larger opponent. It happens quite frequently and there are plenty of stories, annecdotal and documented both, where such attacks not only occur, but where the smaller person wins the encounter. As for being close to safety, perhaps Martin didn’t feel the need to retreat to “safety.” Perhaps Martin actively did not want Zimmerman knowing which house he was headed for. (And that desire in itself isn’t evidence of wrongdoing on Martin’s part; if I was being followed by someone I wouldn’t lead them back to my home, either.)
I applaud President Obama’s desire to have a full investigation. He’s right: we need one and it needs to be thorough. If Zimmerman used his weapon against someone outside of a reasonable self-defense action then he needs to pay the price for that. But we need to know all the details before we go demanding someone do time or, given the Black Panthers’ response, that something worse happen to them. We don’t have those details and implications and conclusions by the media in this case do us all a disservice.