The concept of justice outlined in the last two posts grew out of the preceding discussion on the self. It deals with life as a whole, but does it apply on the scale of life as we live it day-to-day? Does it have anything to say, for instance, about the Trayvon Martin case, which is attracting so much attention?
I say “case” in particular, because whatever it is all about, it is not about justice for Trayvon. It is sadly too late for that, as it was all along.
So what are people talking about? They are talking about blame and punishment. And they are focusing on individuals. A tremendous amount of nonsense has focused on painting Trayvon and George Zimmerman as “good” or “bad,” the murky agenda really being to paint one or the other as more or less deserving of sympathy and legal protection.
Even without an investigation, I think we can conclude that racism was involved in the killing. Not necessarily a premeditated racism. But anyone who says that a majority of Americans out on the street alone at night would not feel some fear at the sight of an unknown black youth is living in a fantasy world or lying. And what if fear gives way to panic and the person has a gun?
Geraldo Rivera might have gone too far in suggesting a fashion makeover, but the reaction to his comments was harder to fathom. Trayvon might well be alive today had he been wearing a suit and tie that night instead of a hoodie. Should he have dressed based on how others might perceive him? Of course not, just as women should not have to dress modestly to avoid being raped.
Racism is a factor in American life, as it is almost anywhere in the world, due to the poisonous effects of self-identification through tribalism and nationalism. It has become less overt, and laws say you might suffer consequences if you do not keep your racism tucked safely out of sight, but laws can’t change hearts.
Blacks certainly do have more “rights” and opportunities than in the past, so you might argue that the legal approach has worked and is sufficient. But while a black male aged 15-24 has very little risk today of being lynched by a mob of hooded figures, he probably has a higher chance of being killed. His risk of dying a violent death is incredibly high, as documented by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Racists would be quick to say that this results primarily from violence at the hands of other young black men. I think, though, that there is very little racial difference behind the pulling of a trigger. The cited report goes on to say that most male homicide victims are killed following arguments or conflicts, and that two of every three homicides overall are committed with firearms.
Nonetheless, would the legal approach bring more than some kind of emotional satisfaction to one side or the other? Suppose that Zimmerman is found guilty of killing Trayvon with no legal justification, and is punished. Will anyone be any safer? Hardly. Theoretically, this could cause another person to think twice before pulling a trigger, but why do we assume that a person pulling a trigger is thinking rationally to begin with?
Research has shown that even on battlefields, many soldiers have died without firing their guns. Or they fired over their target. Evidence of this was found during the Civil War, if not earlier. Eventually, the U.S. Army started desensitization programs to decrease soldiers’ reluctance to kill other human beings. (An interesting article by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman discusses this and more.) Video games in which the player destroys enemies use the same basic principles the army programs have used to make killing seem less real, and thus easier to do.
Given our innate aversion to killing, I think it could be argued that almost everyone who kills is either panicking or suffering from temporary insanity, with stress perhaps a contributing factor, or has been desensitized.
Which brings us back to the shooting itself. Justice, in terms of fundamental equality among all people, would require that we change any conditions that place any group of people at more risk of harm than others. As regards Trayvon and his high-risk demographic, however, a particular concern is the so-called “kill at will” laws under which homicides might not even be investigated.
Given the reality of racism, is it not unjust to essentially tell people: “If you fear that someone is about to harm you, go ahead and shoot them, kill them. It’s OK, and the killing will not even be investigated”? Is that not almost sure to produce tragedies such as the one involving Trayvon? Of course, it will also produce tragedies that do not involve black youths. So are these laws enacted in line with some bizarre idea of acceptable casualties? Do people who accept passage of these laws understand that the possibility of people being killed without reasonable cause is close to 100%? And that Zimmerman and others may also spend the rest of their lives wondering why they pulled the trigger and wishing they hadn’t?
And that’s without even considering the generally high level of stress in modern life combined with the huge desensitization potential of video/computer games and violence as portrayed in the media. These increase the probability of violent assault to the point where permitting easy access to firearms and allowing people to carry them around is nothing less than socially irresponsible.
Of course, people willing to abandon justice out of fear for their safety are fearful for legitimate reasons, crime in particular, as well as false reasons such as racism or other prejudices. But the main factor in crime is unequal distribution of resources and goods, which will change only when we realize that harming or depriving another is harming or depriving our self, and that that we must do our best to ensure everyone has what he or she needs to participate fully in life. These are the two imperatives arising from the concept of justice we have outlined.
There was no justice for Trayvon, but there can be a move toward justice and away from society’s tacit encouragement of aggravated killings by people unable to think rationally when they pull the trigger. Certainly this would require opposing interest groups that are out to change the old motto of “a chicken in every pot” to “a gun in every hand.”
Beyond this stopgap, however, lies the singular need to remove false separation built on a misguided concept of self. Until then we all suffer the effects of injustice through violence, fear and crime; through anger, frustration and depression; through loss of what we have and what we could have, in ways we will never even know.
The Trayvon Martin case not only highlights a lack of justice but reveals, like the tip of an iceberg, how laws and willing ignorance of social reality enshrine injustice instead.