By Frank Wessling
The Florida shooting case involving Trayvon Martin, a young black man, and George Zimmerman, a gun-carrying neighborhood watchman, is a many-sided revelation of the suspicions and mistrust that mar American society.
We are quick to choose sides based on race. Conversation aimed solely at the search for truth becomes nearly impossible.
We have no good answer for the gun-pushers. They exploit the slightest fear to spread deadly weapons everywhere.
We habitually confuse vengeance with “justice.”
On this latter point, the family of Trayvon Martin was more restrained than many others around the nation who protested the way his killing was initially handled by police. Zimmerman, who said his shooting of Martin was part of a physical confrontation, had been released because of Florida’s Stand Your Ground law. The family pushed for his re-arrest on the grounds that evidence might point to murder rather than self-defense. Most of the noisy protest on Martin’s behalf simply assumed racially motivated murder. Minds were made up. Few shouted for a deeper investigation of facts in the case.
This tragedy has many enablers. First are laws that allow almost anyone to go around almost anywhere carrying a loaded gun. In the last few years this kind of throwback to lawless frontier days has been adopted in states all across the country.
Then came a push to drop the traditional legal doctrine known as duty to retreat if possible when threatened outside one’s home. The National Rifle Association and other gun-pushers want an expansive Castle Doctrine, in which a gun-toting citizen may, if he feels threatened, act anywhere as if he is resisting invasion in his “castle” home. Florida has such a law. Thus, George Zimmerman had the law on his side by claiming that Martin assaulted him.
He remained free until the public uproar led to appointment of a special prosecutor who ordered him held for trial on second degree murder charges. That is probably the best course of action. Let a court hear the case, bring out the facts, allow the normal work of justice to be done.
One of the sad features of life in this country is the persistence of feeling in black Americans that justice is not guaranteed for them. They may get it, but can’t feel assured that the scales are evenly balanced when race is involved. Whenever something like the Trayvon Martin case comes along, we must hope and pray that the professionals involved in its investigation and trial do their utmost in the service of truth, and only the truth.
This must happen time after time after time until the memories that haunt black people fade to insignificance.
And all of us as citizens need to remember that real justice begins with us in the way we treat one another in the ordinary business of life. When we demand justice of ourselves in the way we behave, there is much less need for the justice imposed by police, prosecutors and courts.
And is there any hope that we will demand reasonable limits on guns and their use? Or must we continue giving in to the peddlers of fear and salvation by violence?
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On the difference between justice and vengeance, St. Augustine made a useful point around 1,700 years ago. He noted that the moral virtues have both contrary vices and “deceptive resemblances.” With justice, the contrary vice is injustice and the deceptive resemblance — what may resemble justice but lacks some of its essentials — is vengeance. Vengeance belongs to the selfish impulse or habit, justice to the charitable.
In the same way, according to Augustine, a selfish person may appear to be operating with the virtue of thrift but is actually stingy, the deceptive resemblance to thrift.
Deceptive resemblances: a good distinction to keep in mind.
By Frank Wessling