from BARDO

The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way our umbilicus.

Is it a consolation that the stuff of which we’re made

is star-stuff too?

– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –

dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.

Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.

Roselle Angwin

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

the god of fear and the god of profit

Hard to know what to make of the Trayvon Martin vs George Zimmerman case, as it stirs up so many complex and conflicting issues.

I haven't followed all the ins and outs of this case, I have to admit, but is there a whiff of Business as Usual in the acquittal of a white/Hispanic armed man accused of killing an unarmed black teenager? And is it a surprise that 5 out of the 6 jurors were white?

Trayvon Martin was walking home in rain in February 2012, after shopping for tea and chocolate, which he was carrying back to his father's fiancées house. He had the hood of his sweatshirt up. He was 17. Zimmerman, a volunteer on neighbourhood watch, who incidentally had come to the attention of police before, and in fact had considered signing up to train in the police force, was sitting in his vehicle, legally armed with a gun. He is recorded as having said, on calling the police, that there was a guy coming towards him acting suspiciously, who 'looks like he's up to no good or he's on drugs'. Minutes later, there was a scuffle of some sort and Zimmerman, who'd got out of the vehicle to pursue Martin, had shot the teenager dead.

At least 33 US States have laws that allow someone to use, if necessary, fatal force to protect him- or herself in self-defence. It used to be that the person who fired a fatal shot was under the burden of proving that it was crucial in self-defence; now it's the case, in Florida, anyway, where the situation played out, that it's up to the prosecuting authorities to prove that it wasn't.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of this case, the black teenager cannot defend himself, and there seem to have been no witnesses to clearly corroborate or otherwise Zimmerman's story that he felt himself to be under deadly threat from this young guy (who, remember, was not armed). It has been said that aspects of Zimmerman's story do not stack up, or contradict each other. Some critics have said he was not being truthful.

Critics also say that the laws make it much harder for authorities to prosecute violent crimes, as they establish a presumption of self-defence that is very difficult for authorities and prosecutors to disprove.

Three things are especially heartbreaking. One is that Martin is dead, and his family have to live with that, and have had to watch his killer walk free. Equally, Zimmerman is now in a tragic situation: he will have to live with the knowledge of what he has done, and the rage against him by people who have had to witness, too often, black families screwed. He's received death-threats.

That's a lot of lives wrecked, and more racial hatred stirred up.

The second is that the mostly-white jury were all women. Women. Mothers. This was a child who was shot. What's going on here? Is it that they have bought into a system of 'justice' created by men, and are willing to turn a blind eye to the feeling aspects of a situation if instructed to do so? Is it that the cultural mistrust of blacks in a mostly-white society gives whites an inbuilt bias, regardless of what they know intellectually to be right? In being instructed to consider only the evidence, which was in effect Zimmerman's words, did they have to suppress, ignore, neglect the other ways in which we know something to be true: our intuition, our sense of when something is deeply wrong or someone is not telling the truth, our sense of injustice at an armed man killing an unarmed teenager, our empathic hearts? Was it that they were willing to believe what the defence offered because they were naive and trusting, as many women are? Or is it an inevitable result of a legal system where it's not about 'the whole truth and nothing but the truth'; but more about what can or cannot be taken as evidence, can or cannot be verified?

Of course, I'm not saying that our judicial system should be based on emotional reactions and gut instincts. There's arguably too much of that apparent in the brutality in our societies in the first place. But I am saying there's something badly wrong if our noses for what isn't quite right, our sense that if an unarmed solo teenager really presented a lethal threat to an armed man something's out of kilter, the fact that the evidence is inconclusive as to what actually happened but the fact remains that a teenager was shot dead – if these things don't all give us much pause for thought, aren't allowed to colour our final conclusions, there is something adrift.

And finally, guns are for killing. Let's not lose sight of this – that's their only purpose. Of course, incidents such as this bring a two-fold public, media and legal reaction: on the one hand, we need to tighten the gun laws. On the other, it goes, maybe more people should be armed, 'for safety'.

But ultimately concern gives way to capitalism and our base instincts. Gun manufacture serves two big gods: the god of fear and the god of profit. How can anyone believe that more and more weapons, less and less concern about more and more weapons, slacker and slacker gun-laws as a result of all this accelerating fear, can bring anything other than more tragedy?

But, worse, and more distressing, is the fact that people are killed by other people, and the gun is merely an agent. It's this that seems intractable, and Zimmerman's trial and verdict hasn't so far seemed to help, although who knows what people-power through protest might yet achieve.

But 'An eye for an eye is a terrible way to blind the world,' said Gandhi.


  1. It's very tough when our gut instincts say the guy was guilty. I would really like to know what was said in the jury room. I think of the problem as like tying to design a net that only catches guilty people, where the size of the holes in the net is the standard of proof required. Because it is thought much worse to convict an innocent person than to not convict a guilty one, the standard is very high, i.e. "innocent until proven guilty beyond any reasonable doubt". The unfortunate side effect of protecting the innocent is not convicting the guilty.

  2. David, I so appreciate your comments on this as one who knows.

    And as I was writing it, I was aware that it could be argued that I was suggesting we should go for the 'guilty until proven innocent' stance instead, which of course I'd never propose.

    I also realise that ANY legal system will have shortcomings, being made of human beings.

    It may be that Zimmerman was indeed innocent of anything other than a fear of being attacked by a suspicious-looking guy, and it's not my place to know or question that. Just that something about it didn't seem to stack up; not to mention the six weeks it took before they decided to do anything about it, like arrest him (I believe).

    It's possible, of course, too, that I'm guilty of a kneejerk series of assumptions here!


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