Hoodwinked?

There’s been much ado about Geraldo Rivera’s recent comments on the Treyvon Martin/George Zimmerman shooting linking the tragic event to the hoodie Treyvon was wearing that night. To a certain extent, it is a good thing that people have risen up to call Rivera out on such a nonsensical statement, but I’m worried that people are spending way too much time talking about something that really isn’t anywhere near the real heart of the matter. While it is absolutely true that a hoodie is no more an invitation to being shot than a short skirt is an invitation to rape, I think far too much time has been given to this minor and (to any sane person) unrelated discussion. What we really ought to be talking about is the “Stand Your Ground” law that has so far shielded George Zimmerman from facing any charges for his role in Mr. Martin’s death.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with this law, it’s an American legal doctrine that holds any person who feels their life is in imminent danger does not bear a duty to retreat, but has the right to use deadly force. There are 30 states with such laws on their books, and another six with similar bills under consideration. While some states simply allow this as a defence at trial, others (including Florida) hold it as grounds to protect shooters from prosecution completely. In most cases, what is also known as “Castle Doctrine” applies to people in their homes during a break-in; that is, this doctrine allows homeowners to use deadly force in the event that someone is breaking into their house, providing that person isn’t a family member, a police officer who has identified himself, or in the case where the homeowner is engaged in some unlawful activity. However, in the Martin/Zimmerman case, things are murkier since Zimmerman was not in his home and was the one who initiated the confrontation that lead to Martin’s death.

Now, I’m not about to discuss the particulars of the case, in part because if you’ve read this far you’ve likely already heard as much as I have, and have probably formed your own opinion on the various accounts of what happened that night, but mostly because I think it’s beside the point of what we should be discussing, which is this “Stand Your Ground” idea. Is it reasonable to codify a legal doctrine that absolves people of their civil or criminal liability on the ground that they were afraid for their lives? To a certain extent, I do think it is a valid defense, but only so far. While it would be unreasonable not to allow at least some measure of protection in cases of self-defence, it seems that things have gone quite a bit past this notion and into what some have described as a “Wild West” situation where, “That guy looked scary, so I shot him,” isn’t too far away from being offered as justification in a shooting death. Since the dead person obviously can’t give his own side in these cases, police and courts have nothing to rely on but the shooter’s testimony, so it’s not hard to see how this sort of thing could be abused. In this particular case, an armed adult with a history of violence is claiming that he felt his life was in danger at from a 17-year-old with a bag of candy, so a reasonable person might well ask for a little more than the shooter’s word on how things happened, but for reasons I will refrain from speculating on, this standard of reasonableness is not being applied. Due to the way the Florida law is being interpreted by certain officials, Zimmerman has yet to be charged with any crime for shooting an unarmed teenager, and I think this is something we should be talking about, rather than whether wearing a hoodie increases minority teens’ chances of getting shot and killed.

For those of you who may have posted a picture of yourself in a hoodie to show your support, that’s a positive thing, I don’t want to take anything away from pointing out just how grossly ignorant Geraldo’s comments were, but how about bringing up the topic of what’s keeping this from coming to trial, and why it’s taking a federal investigation to move the process forward? How about bringing up the discussion of how much power fear is being given in the writing of laws that wind up protecting killers from the legal ramifications of their actions? While I appreciate that the intent of this law was to make criminals think twice about taking part in a home invasion or robbing someone on the street, the application has given rise to some serious problems, including a near-tripling of self-defence claims since the law was introduced in Florida, with all but one of the people killed being unarmed. It is far too easy a defence to make, all you have to do is claim that you were afraid for your life, make sure the other guy is dead so he can’t give his side of the story, and you’re off the hook for killing another person.

What motivates laws like this is public fear, and very little else. While there has been a reasonable standard in legal precedent for over a century in the US, legislators pander to the fears of their voters in order to present themselves at re-election time as the defenders of the public against the ravaging hoards of evil-doers out to get them. Of course there are those who will add in elements like racism and an overgrown gun culture, but those factors are just manifestations of the underlying problem of the politics of fear. As someone who has held more than one position where there was a prescribed spectrum of force, I know full well that there have been cases where one punch has proven to be deadly; any situation involving physical violence could be considered potentially deadly, so there’s a “reasonable” argument to be made that someone winding up for a punch is a serious threat to life. Is this really the standard anyone would want to have applied, where a scrap at a bar could offer a legal defence for pulling a gun and ending someone’s life?

Personally, I think this doctrine is far too easy to abuse, and will end more lives than it saves. Even if it doesn’t, I am strongly opposed to the principle of writing laws that play into the fears of a public whipped up by a sensationalist media looking to hype every crime up into something much worse than it actually is, while downplaying the devastating social effects of “tough on crime” legislative agendas. Such platforms play well with the frightened masses, and they get votes for the politicians who take advantage of that fear. It is up to responsible citizens to stand up and tell people to calm down, to really take a minute and think things through before pushing for easier access to concealed handguns and the right to use them whenever you get scared. The take-away message here is that I want people to base their politics on facts, not fears; I want people to really listen to the messages being put out there by our media outlets and our politicians. They are not always looking out for your best interests; don’t take what they say at face value. While they have you donning hoodies for facebook pictures, you’re not paying attention to the fact that they’re passing laws that make it easier for exactly the same kind of thing to happen again.

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2 thoughts on “Hoodwinked?

  1. I wholeheartedly agree. I think there are bigger issues at play in this case than the “hoogie” statement. It was immensely stupid, we’ve all identified that, now let’s move on. I would say the two big issues would be the “Stand Your Ground” law like you pointed out, but also the issue of racism. I’m not saying that Zimmerman killed Martin out of some racist fears (that’s up for debate), but the reaction that people have had to the story is what concerns me. It’s very telling when people are trying to validate the killing, not because of self-defense, but because they only see Trayvon Martin as some thug gang member because he’s a young black male.

    So far as the “Stand Your Ground” law, those sorts of laws are extremely tricky. If you kill someone in cold blood, but there are no witnesses, who’s to say you couldn’t claim self-defense under that law and get away with it?

  2. I think you are right on both counts. It should be no surprise to anyone that a talking head on TV said something stupid, and it is a distraction from important issues. NPR did talk about the ‘Stand Your Ground’ thing, mentioning that it has even been used as a defense in gang shootings. It’s scary to think about all the people in this country who love guns like they are sacred objects, but don’t have enough common sense to treat them with the respect they should.

    I remember an SNL skit with the original cast where everyone was walking around with nuclear weapons. It was a comment on the cold war and mutually assured destruction, but it was also taking the weird gun culture we have to its logical conclusion.

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