“A nation does not have to be cruel to be tough.” —Franklin D. Roosevelt
Cain was jealous of his brother Abel. Cain said to his brother, ‘let’s go out to the field.’ There, Cain attacked and killed Abel. Then the Lord said to Cain, ‘Where is your brother Abel?’ Cain replied, ‘I know not. Am I my brother’s keeper?’
The apocryphal first murder raised the first question of whether one individual can be responsible for the intentional death of another. Millennia of religious morality, ethical philosophy and legal principle have answered Cain’s question in the Book of Genesis with a resounding “Yes!” The idea that we are responsible for killing another person is fundamental to society. It separates us from wild animals. It makes communities possible. It enforces norms of resolving disputes peacefully through dialogue and the rule of law. When conflict breaks out we are reminded that there is a shockingly thin line between civilization and chaos. But as long as we agree to answer this question in the affirmative, we generally hew toward the civilized society. In Florida, George Zimmerman allegedly shot unarmed Trayvon Martin and has not been arrested. In Florida the answer to Cain’s question is “No.”
It is no coincidence that some of the oldest recorded documents are legal codes. Babylonian law, inscribed over 4,000 years ago following the dawn of organized agriculture and complex societies, rules that if a man kills he must be killed. One of the first orders of business for the earliest people to live in cities and towns was to agree that no one should be allowed to kill anyone.
Over time, ‘an eye for an eye’ legal equations evolved into normative justice. By the time of the Old Testament around 3,000 years ago, the laws that Moses handed down to the Israelites included the simple commandment: “Thou shall not kill.” Jesus of Nazareth updated this imperative with an appeal to corrective empathy with the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Think of the life of your fellow human being because it has equal value to yours.
Following the Reformation, the Enlightenment brought Western thought into the modern world. Philosopher Emmanuel Kant defined Enlightenment ethics with the Categorical Imperative: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.” In other words, only do things if it would make sense for everyone to do them. Each moral decision should be considered in light of what society would look like if everyone did the same thing.
Followed by many other countries, the US Constitution was framed specifically around Enlightenment ideals. The Founders were educated, in a sense, by Kant and other philosophers on how to design a country with democratic values ensuring rights to life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and trial by jury. Our civilization has always depended on increasingly sophisticated norms of respecting the lives of others.
Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law flouts ancient ethical traditions of basic human decency. It places the burden of proof on the prosecution to prove that the defendant did not use deadly force in self-defense. Self-defense is normally determined at trial. But a provision of the law says:
The defendant becomes immune from prosecution simply by stating that he acted in self-defense. In effect, the defendant becomes legally innocent the moment the victim dies.
Three phone calls shed light onto the moment that young Trayvon died. Zimmerman called the police saying a suspicious black male “up to no good” or “on drugs” was in his neighborhood. The dispatcher told him police were on the way. Zimmerman said he was pursuing Martin and the dispatcher essentially told him not to. Zimmerman swore and possibly muttered a racial slur, expressing exasperation.
Meanwhile, Martin was on the phone with his girlfriend. She said that Martin told her a man was watching him and he was going to put up his hood and try to get away from him. Momentarily, he believed he had evaded his pursuer. But Zimmerman returned, approached Martin and “cornered” him. She heard Martin ask “what are you following me for?” and Zimmerman ask “what you doing around here?” Then she heard Martin get shoved and he dropped the phone.
A neighbor called the police to report a scuffle happening outside her house. On the phone call, a boy’s voice can be heard hollering for help. Then there is a gunshot. The boy’s voice falls silent as the woman becomes frantic.
By any reasonable standard of justice, these readily available facts should at least merit an arrest. But Zimmerman is still a free man. Zimmerman’s feelings are defense enough. That Zimmerman felt threatened by a boy carrying skittles who was trying to run away from him tells us more about Zimmerman’s mentality than anything else. Stand Your Ground is a perversion of law. It subjugates justice to fickle subjectivity and split-second decisions by non-professionals in heated situations. As far as Florida law is concerned, there is no reason to even question that Zimmerman may have done something wrong, because he felt threatened and he stood his ground.
The “Stand Your Ground” legislation was sponsored by Florida state Representative Dennis Baxley and state Senator Durell Peadon, both Republican ally of Jeb Bush. The governor quickly signed the measure into law—despite explicit and repeated warnings that this law would encourage shootings of innocents like Trayvon Martin. And despite explicit and repeated warnings that people of color and young people would be unreasonably and disproportionately harmed by the law.
The Florida law has been used as a model for new pro-gun laws around the country. Along with the NRA, the conservative organization American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) has pushed for laws all over the country that allow people not only to bear arms but to use them. In other states, the law has been coquettishly named the “Castle” law or the “Make My Day” law with a wink and a nod toward every unhinged vigilante Don Quixote who envisions himself as Dirty Harry.
ALEC is funded by a staggering array of very wealthy and influential individuals and corporations, including the notorious billionaire libertarian activists and big time GOP bundlers, the Koch brothers. The gun manufacturers pushed the NRA and ALEC who pushed Republican legislators to slip insane laws with totally awesome names onto the books. For corporate profits, Republicans passed laws that make our society literally uncivilized. The GOP would have Trayvon Martins bleeding in our streets from Honolulu to Miami to keep weapons manufacturers raking in the dough and funding Republican campaign ads.
“Through ALEC, corporations vote as equals with elected officials on task forces producing ‘model’ bills to rewrite the laws that govern life in YOUR state. Big business has a VOICE and a VOTE…”
The corporations have spoken. Through their GOP puppets, they have answered Cain’s age-old question of whether we are responsible to each other with a petulant “nahhh…” As a result a teenage boy who carried candy through the rain is gone from the world forever. And in Florida, that is a-ok.