My response to Andrew Rosenthal’s commentary: “With Zimmerman, the Scandal is What’s Legal”–New York Times

Trayvon Martin photo
Robyn Beck/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

I’ve spent the last few days doing what I imagine a lot of people have been doing: thinking about the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial. I didn’t automatically expect a particular verdict; ever since Rodney King, O.J. Simpson, William Kennedy Smith, Casey Anthony . . . (the list goes on), I’ve realized that sitting on a jury and following the parameters established by legal definitions is a very different task than reading news accounts and following gut instincts.

So I’m going to refrain from more Monday-morning quarterbacking. Having said that, I found Andrew Rosenthal’s commentary (With Zimmerman, the Scandal Is What’s Legal) in today’s New York Times helpful in capturing the frustration felt by one of my online friends and shared by me. Rosenthal, acknowledging the evidentiary difficulties in the case, asks the more perplexing question: what was Zimmerman thinking in the first place?

I’ve tried to imagine myself in his position. I’m a member of my neighborhood watch patrol. I look out my front window (or my car, for that matter). I see somebody who looks suspicious to me, even though they are not in the process of committing a crime. I call the police to report this suspicious behavior (which in this case amounted to walking down the sidewalk). The police tell me not to take matters into my own hands, but I decide instead to arm myself and begin following the individual on foot (again, this individual is not in the process of committing a crime, nor does anyone in the vicinity appear to be in imminent danger of harm from this individual). What kind of outcome am I anticipating at this point?

In other words, what was Zimmerman’s plan? Was he thinking, “I’ll apprehend this individual walking down the sidewalk and detain him until the police arrive and arrest him for . . .?” Was he thinking, “I’m just going to scare this kid from walking in my neighborhood in the future?” Was he thinking, “I’m going to provoke a confrontation in which one of us, or both, is possibly going to end up dead?” I think the answer has to be that he just wasn’t thinking, period.

As Rosenthal points out, this is where the “Stand Your Ground” law falls apart and ought to be challenged on constitutional grounds. When my constitutional right to defend myself becomes a pretext for threatening others or engaging in reckless behavior, I’ve crossed a line. I have told my kids more than once that they can’t pick a fight and then pretend to be the innocent victim afterward. And yet we’re ok with a “Minority Report” law that lets me decide in advance who is going to commit a crime and that justifies any provocative actions I might take in my “defense”?

I live in a free society, governed by laws. As such, I accept the fact that risk is inevitable. I don’t know for sure that the people around me are “safe.” But I do know for sure that I don’t want people who think the way George Zimmerman thought “keeping” me safe.

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