Life is ambiguous;
death shouldn't be, too
Tuesday, July 23, 2013 3:30 AM
When I wrote about the death of Trayvon Martin last year, my thoughts focused slightly on race, but mostly on the "stand your ground law" that existed in Florida. The reason I zeroed in on the law was because Minnesota's Legislature had at the time passed legislation similar to Florida's, but it was vetoed by Gov. Mark Dayton, ironically, on the day before the Martin shooting.
It turns out neither race nor gun laws were an integral part of the recently completed trial of George Zimmerman, who shot Martin in an altercation in Florida. Yet, those two issues are on the minds of many Americans, whether they are taking part in rallies supporting Martin or conversing about the subject at the dinner table in communities throughout the area.
Even President Obama weighed in on the case during a spontaneous talk last week as he realized the case is something on the minds of so many Americans. Although his talk focused on the state of racial relations, saying Martin could have been him 35 years ago, he also asked if local laws, such as the one in Florida, are designed in such a way that they may encourage the kind of confrontation we saw in the Florida case, rather than diffuse potential altercations.
Sunday, Sen. John McCain on a national news program, was wondering the same thing, suggesting states should review their laws in light of the national conversation about the trial.
As Obama stated in his talk, "And for those who resist that idea that we should think about something like these 'stand your ground' laws, I'd just ask people to consider, if Trayvon Martin was of age and armed, could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk? And do we actually think that he would have been justified in shooting Mr. Zimmerman who had followed him in a car because he felt threatened? And if the answer to that question is at least ambiguous, then it seems to me that we might want to examine those kinds of laws."
That's the thing about stand your ground laws. They are based on certainty, yet we live in an ambiguous world.
Under stand your ground law, individuals are permitted to use deadly force - free from prosecution or civil liability - in the name of self defense if they reasonably believe their safety is threatened in a public setting.
Yet, in public settings we perceive threats all the time - many that turn out to be imaginary, but perceived threats nonetheless - when bumping into the space of strangers.
Zimmerman saw Martin as a threat because, in his mind, he acted suspiciously, yet he now knows that the 17-year-old was merely walking back from the store after purchasing soda and Skittles. And, Martin saw Zimmerman as a threat because he got out of his car and started following him, perhaps to harm him, yet he never knew that the man was a Neighborhood Watch volunteer.
The misinterpretations could have happened to any of us. Our minds don't always behave rationally, particularly when a perceived threat is involved.
That's why, as Obama noted, before he became a state senator he heard car door locks click when he walked across the street, the same sound countless other black men have heard over the years. These fearful motorists would have acted differently had they known he was a future president of the United States.
But, we don't know a person's history or circumstances. We only have appearance to guide us in these situations and our mind is saturated with all types of historical biases, stereotypes and what we may call intuition, but is often just guessing.
Even the most enlightened of us, who understand the facts about crime, may not act rationally in public if in an unfamiliar area or dealing with unfamiliar people. Fear is a powerful emotion that can't always be controlled by rationality.
That's why the stand your ground and concealed-carry laws that are sweeping across the nation have the potential to alter our public space to society's detriment.
Clicking the lock on your car door or clutching your purse in the elevator may not be the most logical reaction to an imaginary threat, but at least they don't result in a lethal misinterpretation, even if those actions can diminish a whole race of people; when fear overtakes our mind, standing your ground has far more tragic consequences.
Supporters of the law call it vital self-defense legislation while critics called it a "shoot first" law. In a way, they both are somewhat accurate.
The question, though, is what kind of society are we creating with these laws?
They don't make the world less ambiguous, only more dangerous. They don't make the human mind any better at accurately assessing a threat, only quicker to judge. And, they don't stop us from misreading situations, only making our snap decisions lethal.