19 July 2013
Standing their ground on their right to kill
The National Rifle Association has entered the fray over "stand your ground" laws following the Zimmerman trial. While the Florida version of the law was not a factor in Zimmerman's trial or acquittal, his killing of Trayvon Martin has called fresh attention to laws that many critics see as entitlements for killers. The federal Attorney General told a sympathetic NAACP audience that "stand your ground" seems to "senselessly expand the concept of self-defense." This comment threw the NRA into a semantic snit. "Self-defense is not a concept," a spokesman sneered, "It's a fundamental human right." This may not be the time to debate whether any "fundamental human right" is more than a "concept." The immediate issue is the scope of self-defense. While Zimmerman's acquittal didn't depend on the letter of Florida's stand-your-ground law, it was based on a principle that allows more subjectivity than many people are comfortable with. The jurors concluded that Zimmerman had enough reason to fear for his life that he should not be punished for killing Martin. I'm not sure whether that implies an objective finding that Martin was trying to kill Zimmerman, and my uncertainty is part of the problem. Zimmerman owes his freedom to a judgment on his feelings, it seems, rather than an objective judgment of the danger he was in. It allows for the panic he certainly felt while Martin was pummeling him, but it also seems to make that panic sufficient reason to exempt Zimmerman from punishment. This is where the law at play in the Zimmerman trial and the "stand your ground" principle converge. The indulgence granted to fear, however "reasonable" jurors deem it, looks dangerous to those painfully aware of how much irrational fear drives so many people regardless of race or other factors. Defenders of Zimmerman in particular and stand-your-ground in general apparently believe that this indulgence is necessary if we would not inhibit people from taking necessary steps in more indisputably mortal peril. The NRA position seems to be that we have no right to self-defense unless we can kill with impunity when we feel we need to. They should tell us where the right to self-defense ends and the attacker's right to life begins, or vice versa -- or if they even draw a line. The right to kill does not follow from any right to self-defense. We may acknowledge an inevitable (or "natural") human prerogative to defend ourselves when attacked, but nature is silent on whether we should suffer a penalty when we kill. To demand that our "natural right" absolves us from sanction when we end a life is to abdicate our prerogative as civilized, social beings. My position on the Martin case has been not to idealize Martin, who clearly behaved like a fool when he started hitting Zimmerman, but to insist that however the unarmed Martin provoked or threatened him, Zimmerman should still suffer some sort of penalty for taking a human life. I fail to see how any real or imagined human right would be violated by holding Zimmerman to account. I definitely fail to see how anyone in this country can feel safer because Zimmerman was acquitted, or why anyone may have felt less safe were he convicted. Would they feel more inhibited against defending themselves with lethal force? Well, when you appeal to natural rights in a civilized society, you're taking a chance -- but it's still a free country.