Open-Ended Grievance

Barack Obama is one of the most thoughtful men ever to occupy the Oval Office.  He is the rare president—nay, the rare politician of any sort—who is a true intellectual, effectively reasoning his way through his job.

Anyone who still doubted the commander-in-chief’s cerebral capacities, having heretofore attributed his rhetorical magic to speechwriters and Teleprompters, was given a rather stern rebuke by the president’s comments on Friday regarding the shooting of Trayvon Martin and subsequent trial of George Zimmerman, who was acquitted of both murder and manslaughter charges last week.

The 17-minute quasi-speech, extemporaneous and flowing directly from the president’s heart, covered similar territory as his celebrated “race speech” of March 2008, and seemed to make the same broad point:  On matters of race relations, the United States has progressed and matured by leaps and bounds, but is still very much a work in progress.  Racism in America is not nearly as bad as it once was—not by a long shot—but it has not altogether disappeared.  It has merely grown more subtle.

Obama’s central plea in these addresses is for white Americans to understand why many black Americans still feel they have gotten a raw deal from their mother country.  That nearly every black person, at one time or another, has found himself the object of a white person’s fear and/or suspicion for no reason except that he is black.

The implication, in light of the Zimmerman verdict, is that a white person’s irrational, prejudicial views about black people can lead to a senseless killing and, more alarming still, allow one to literally get away with murder.  In other words, this is not merely a philosophical problem.

The popular view about George Zimmerman is that the only reason he considered Trayvon Martin “suspicious,” following him across the neighborhood and thereby provoking a scuffle that led to him shooting Martin dead, is because Martin was black.  Had Martin been white, the theory goes, Zimmerman would not have given Martin’s behavior a second thought and the shooting would never have occurred.

We have no idea if this is true.  Zimmerman denies it, although he could be lying.  The audio of his phone conversation with police has him commenting, “These assholes, they always get away,” but we have no particular cause to assume he had black people in mind.  For years, his and Martin’s gated community had been rife with burglaries, break-ins and the like, committed by people of many skin colors.  Racially speaking, “these assholes” is fairly all-encompassing.

It is with these details in mind that we must consider the president’s observation that personal experiences of white people’s prejudices “inform how the African-American community interprets what happened one night in Florida.  And it’s inescapable for people to bring those experiences to bear.”

My question is this:  For how long will it be “inescapable”?  Under what circumstances will it no longer be morally justified to infer racist motives in cases where such prejudices are not necessarily borne out by the facts?  Assuming a white person harbors racist views is certainly justified by history, but what happens when it’s not justified by the evidence?

The president didn’t say, and I rather wish that he had.

My primary concern (beyond the Zimmerman case) is that the heretofore understandable black suspicion toward white suspicion will endure far beyond its natural lifespan.  That the notion that white people assault black people for purely racial reasons will continue to be accepted as a given, thereby allowing America’s residual racial divides to survive to fight another day.

As a highly imperfect analogy, one might consider certain Jews’ attitudes toward the Republic of Germany.

In the early years following the end of the Second World War, members of the Twelve Tribes could be forgiven for suspecting that folks with German blood were, shall we say, out to get them.  A crime committed by a German against a Jew could reasonably be assumed to have been anti-Semitic in nature.

Today, nearly seven decades since the last gas chambers were extinguished, Germany has all but outlawed anti-Semitism within its borders—denying the Holocaust is a criminal offense—and individual Germans tend not to be any more anti-Jewish than other Europeans; if anything, they are less so.

Yet there are countless Jews who still refuse to buy a German car or patronize German businesses, even here in the states.  No one has to explain why this happens, yet we are nonetheless entitled to question whether such behavior is any longer rational or even ethical.  Why should a German teenager automatically suffer for the sins of his grandfather?

The message is not “forgive and forget.”  Some people don’t deserve to be forgiven, having committed crimes that ought always to be remembered as sharply as one can muster.  Some modern-day Germans (and non-Germans) really are out to get the Jews, just as some white folk really do profile black folk, sometimes in a lethal fashion.

Rather, one should refrain, as much as one can, from combating bad faith with bad faith.  A right, two wrongs do not make.

The ultimate solution, as President Obama correctly noted, is for those still in need of enlightenment on the issue to be given the education they so urgently require.  As we wait for such an eventuality to occur (not that such a project will ever truly be complete), we would do well for ourselves and our society—if I may coin a phrase—to give each other the benefit of the doubt.

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Leave Florida Alone

When I was in high school, the concept of self-defense did not exist.

In my high school’s official student handbook, it was made plain that, in the event that two students fought on school grounds, neither one would be granted the presumption of having acted in self-defense.

As a classmate aptly put it, “If someone starts hitting you, the correct answer is to just stand there and keep getting hit until a teacher happens to walk by and break it up.”  Indeed, it seemed that an abjectly passive response to physical harassment was the only way you could be certain not to face disciplinary actions later on.

In the real world, of course, the effective prohibition on defending oneself from harm is utterly unworkable and, in point of fact, morally repugnant.  In practice, it would render one either a sitting duck or an unwitting future prison inmate.  It leaves only the bullies to decide who gets to live or die.

The principle of self-defense is something on which nearly everyone agrees.  The controversy lies only in the details.

There was a great deal of debate about the minutiae of self-defense laws during the trial of George Zimmerman, who last week was acquitted of second-degree murder and manslaughter charges in the shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.

Indeed, self-preservation was the long and the short of Team Zimmerman’s case, which argued that Martin’s behavior on the night of February 26, 2012, caused Zimmerman to fear for his physical well-being to such a degree that he had no choice but to shoot Martin, which he did.

This rationale proved persuasive enough to the six-member jury, which ruled that Zimmerman’s actions were within the boundaries of Florida state law on the matter, and that he was not to be held criminally liable for Martin’s death.

In the meanwhile, the state of Florida has been subject to enormous critical ire.  Stevie Wonder vowed never to perform in the state again, while temporary Daily Show host John Oliver declared it the “worst state” in the union.  A spliced-together clip of Bugs Bunny circumcising Florida from the continent with a handsaw circulated across online social networks, and most applauded the idea.

The basis for all this antipathy is the provision in Florida’s self-defense laws known as “stand your ground,” enacted in 2005, which licenses anyone fearing for his life to use deadly force against the person he perceives to be threatening him.

The prevailing view is that the looseness of Florida’s policy is sui generis and the only reason George Zimmerman is now a free man.

The prevailing view is wrong.  In fact, it’s wrong twice.

For all the press that “stand your ground” has received throughout this ordeal, Zimmerman’s attorneys did not specifically cite it in their argument for acquittal.  Instead, they relied on state laws that existed before “stand your ground” was written—clauses that entitle one to execute deadly force if one is being savagely attacked, as Zimmerman allegedly was by Martin.  If one takes Zimmerman’s version of events at face value, as the jury did, then the case for self-defense writes itself.

What is more, on the matter of “stand your ground,” Florida is by no means the only state with such low standards for what constitutes justified self-defense.  Not even close.

The “duty to retreat” doctrine—an attempt-to-flee-before-shooting statute that used to underlie common law on the matter—has effectively been done away with in no fewer than two dozen states, which have followed Florida’s lead in putting the onus on the prosecution to prove defensive lethal force was not necessary in a given situation, rather than on the defense to prove that it was.

“Castle law,” the 17th century English concept that one can shoot a threatening person with happy abandon should he enter one’s home, has been expanded to include cars and various public places in a similar number of states.  The details are by no means identical from state to state, but the principle is the same:  If you feel personally endangered and you happen to be armed, fire away.

The fact must be faced:  In today’s America, George Zimmerman could have been acquitted of murdering Trayvon Martin in jurisdictions from coast to coast.  It is not simply a problem for one particular state, even one as silly, dysfunctional and backward as Florida.

Commentator-in-Chief

President Barack Obama has long been criticized for his reluctance to involve himself in the business of Congress, so often declining to march down Pennsylvania Avenue to personally harangue members of the House and Senate to pass a particular bill, as past presidents have been known to do.

This charge, while sometimes exaggerated, is true enough.

Considering the president’s general aloofness on matters of American governance, it is rather curious that he has no such reticence on matters of the American culture, into which he seems positively itching to dive.

There he was, mere hours after a Florida jury acquitted George Zimmerman of second-degree murder, issuing an official statement reading, in part, “The death of Trayvon Martin was a tragedy.  Not just for his family, or for any one community, but for America.”

This was not the first time the commander-in-chief chimed in on the murder trial that captured the nation’s imagination.  In March, as coverage of the case reached saturation levels, the president intoned, “When I think about this boy, I think about my own kids, and I think every parent in America should be able to understand why it is absolutely imperative that we investigate every aspect of this […] If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon.”

We may well ask:  Why is the leader of the free world commenting about a matter that is the business of local Florida law enforcement?  What concern is the killing of one private citizen by another private citizen to the most powerful man on Earth, that he cannot help but offer his own personal musings about it?

But then, we know the answer to these queries, at least in this particular case.  Obama insinuated himself into the Trayvon Martin conversation because he views it as a “teachable moment” for America on the issue of gun violence.  It is, in his words, an opportunity to “ask ourselves if we’re doing all we can to stem the tide of gun violence,” and to figure out “how we can prevent future tragedies like this.”

Indeed, you might say that, by exploiting a local incident to push his national agenda, Obama is doing culturally what he sometimes fails to do legislatively:  Claiming the moral high ground.  If this is what it takes to govern, he might argue, then so be it.

All the same, this does not make the general practice of presidential involvement in ostensibly low-level news events any less dubious.

The question we must ask is simply this:  Being a figurehead, not just an individual, is the president not obligated to position himself above and slightly removed from the friction of daily life in the United States?  Should he not recuse himself from matters that do not require his attention, in the interest of at least appearing to be disinterested and objective?

Consider a slightly less serious example than Trayvon Martin:  The NCAA tournament.

Every year while he has occupied the Oval Office, Obama has filled out his own March Madness bracket and broadcast it to the nation.  (Indeed, his predictions have proved quite prescient.)

While he has every right to join the millions of his fellow Americans in this sacred spring ritual—as a lifelong basketball enthusiast, he presumably would be doing it anyway—I nonetheless wonder if it is not improper to do so at the White House desk.  It somehow seems beneath the majesty of the office he presently holds.

What must it be like to be, say, a promising 19-year-old freshman point guard and be told the president of the United States has penciled your team in for a first round loss?  It cannot feel great.  It seems to me that the nation’s highest officeholder should have the courtesy to keep out of it.

To be the president—a one-man institution—is to surrender certain privileges for as long as your term endures.  For instance, you cannot run out to the corner florist to buy a bouquet for your mistress (unless, of course, you are Michael Douglas in The American President).  You cannot drive a car or drink to excess, nor can you call in sick because of a particularly splitting headache.

And you can’t offer your opinion on every last aspect of the American culture, no matter how persistently members of the press corps might ask for them.  Some impulses ought to be resisted for the sake of old-fashioned propriety.

Sometimes, the most essential duty of the president is not to participate, but simply to preside.