Laws and tragedy

Written by Baker City Herald Editorial Board April 06, 2012 08:41 am

There’s much we don’t yet know — and might never know — about the killing of Trayvon Martin on Feb. 26 in Sanford, Fla.

What seems clear from the limited information that is available, though, is that Martin should be alive today.

With the great advantage of hindsight — and even accounting for that scarcity of facts — we can conclude only that the episode that ended with George Zimmerman fatally shooting Martin in the chest with a handgun need not have started.

Which is not to say Zimmerman committed a crime.

Florida’s “stand your ground” law could, at least in theory, exonerate Zimmerman.

As a legal precept, we endorse wholeheartedly the notion that a person is entitled to defend his own life, and those of his loved ones, by whatever means necessary, including deadly force.

But the Martin case is vastly different from the sort of scenario in which that precept is grounded.

Martin didn’t barge into Zimmerman’s home, trespass in his yard, or accost him, unprovoked, on the street.

The evidence released so far strongly suggests that the altercation which ended in Martin’s death was instigated solely by Zimmerman — that it would never have happened had Zimmerman not followed Martin.

Whether the circumstances of that altercation warranted Zimmerman firing his gun is, as we noted, an open question, to be answered, we hope, after a thorough vetting based on the Florida law.

But surely no reasonable person can react with anything but dismay at the idea that someone can be killed during an incident which he had no part in precipitating.

The Martin case has ceased to serve as the basis for a sober, national discussion about “stand your ground” laws and the actions of neighborhood watch volunteers.

It has instead been conflated into a symbol for racism.

This is as predictable as it is unfortunate.

Racism exists, of course.

And it might have played a role in Martin’s death — although, absent an admission by Zimmerman, any claims to that effect are apt to be pure conjecture.

Were Zimmerman to be convicted of a crime, this would at least blunt the force of allegations that you can, perhaps literally, get away with murder so long as the victim has black skin and favors hooded sweatshirts.

But whether Zimmerman is convicted or cleared, the issues this case highlights will remain.

Chief among those whether laws such as Florida’s enable — or perhaps more troubling, encourage — people who are neither trained to recognize criminals, nor authorized to deal with them, to act as if they are.

We doubt Zimmerman pursued Martin intending of killing him.

But that’s what happened.

Society needs laws that allow innocent people to protect themselves against trouble that befalls them.

Laws which might shield people who in effect go looking for trouble, no matter how noble their intentions, are a different matter altogether.