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Trayvon Martin: The Neglected Story That Implicates Us All

When we sanction the use of violence to prevent violence, it’s hypocritical to be shocked when violence ensues.

After World War II, US Navy personnel carried out an experiment in germ warfare. They spent several days spraying lethal bacteria into the fog around San Francisco Bay. The “experiment” killed at least one person, whose grandchildren sued the government years later when the facts became public under the Freedom of Information Act. Norman Cousins was at that time the editor of the Saturday Review of Literature. His liberal credentials were unimpeachable. It was the more arresting when he argued, then, that while the “experiment” was deplorable and deserving of legal action and while the indignation of the victim’s relatives – and of the general public – was understandable, there was in that indignation, he was afraid to say, an element of hypocrisy.

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It was not the first time that point had been made. In the film The Battle of Algiers – which dealt with the indignation of the French public on discovering that the forces they had dispatched to Algiers to crush the popular uprising of 1957 were practicing torture (is this beginning to sound familiar?) – when Gen. Massu is confronted with this outrage at a news conference, he said, “Look, you have sent me here to do this job, and vous en devez accepter toutes les conséquences (you have to accept all the consequences).”

This is exactly the point I have to raise about the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin on the night of February 26, 2012, in Sanford, Florida. Please don’t misunderstand: I am not saying that racism is not, still, a scourge we must cleanse. I am not saying that elite privilege (the killing took place in a gated community) should not be confronted. I am not saying that the “stand your ground” law that allows persons to use lethal force to defend their home or a person has not become a license to kill that should be reconsidered. I am saying that to isolate one person or one law is to mislead ourselves and distract us from taking note of a much deeper lesson that we cannot avoid if we want to live in peace and security.

The lesson is that we cannot go on relying on violence to defend us from violence. There is no such thing as a clean, sanitized military that can take over the job of protecting us. People have to protect themselves with the robustness of their institutions and integrity of their values. And there is no such thing as a “civil” violence that can shield us from criminal depredations. George Zimmerman was the neighborhood watch coordinator for his community. That kind of institution might be an answer to the increasing militarization of our police forces. Or it might be a regression to vigilantism, which makes violence much worse. In either case, it’s no solution. There is no way out until we face the fact that we have a violent culture. The hope that we can contain violence and expect it to be released only in ways we approve of is vain; to cling to it in the face of mounting contrary evidence is hypocritical.

The real solution – and I’m fully aware that this is a tall order and far from easy to implement – is to address the causes of the high levels of crime in all our communities, some more than others. And address them with means that do not replicate the problem. What would a nonviolent solution look like? I see it rolling out in several dimensions:

  • Curtailment of violence in the mass media, first of all by people simply turning it off, rather than restrictive legislation.
  • Similar curtailment of the playing up of greed as a way to happiness.
  • Replacement of the present retributive system with “restorative justice” for dealing with the offenses that still occur.
  • Implementation of nonviolent approaches to international conflicts.

Perhaps you’re saying it would take a different kind of human being than we think we are to do things like this. But the fact is, we are a different kind of human being than we think we are. The very misconception of ourselves as separate, helpless, responding only to force is the worst aspect of the prevailing culture. Everything science is telling us (and wisdom traditions have always told us) shows that we are far more interconnected than we realize – and far less helpless. Changes like this are doable. If we get inspired to do them, we would be able to say with honesty that the tragedy of Trayvon Martin’s death was not entirely in vain. How do you see yourself fitting in?

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