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.

8 comments:

Crhymethinc said...

As far as I'm concerned, Zimmerman lost any right to self-defense the moment he stepped out of his vehicle. It is obvious that his intention was to cause a confrontation with Martin. That makes him, not Martin, the aggressor. How can an aggressor claim self-defense? At which point did this fist fight become a justifiable cause for murder? When Zimmerman realized he bit off more than he could chew and was losing a fight he initiated by getting out of his vehicle.

Anonymous said...

I feel threatened by the NRA...

Samuel Wilson said...

Crhymethinc: the jury apparently accepted the defense account of events, according to which Martin had effectively escaped Zimmerman only to turn back and initiate his own attack. The case seems to hinge on the assumption that there was a point when Martin could have walked away and all would be over. I didn't follow the trial very closely, but I presume that the proseuction disputed this version of events and wanted to prove that Martin had no choice but to fight.

Anon. I think the NRA has to be in some sort of fairly close proximity to you before that trick will work. Try walking past a gun-rights rally and you might be able to get away with something, depending on the state you're in, and the state they're in.

hobbyfan said...

Long ago, we were told that children should be seen and not heard. Today, we amend that statement, such that it applies to the NRA.

Roughly translated, the NRA should STFU.

Anonymous said...

And yet Zimmerman, the aggressor, could simply have not gotten out of his vehicle. Again, as he was the initial aggressor, by not walking away, one could argue that Trayvon was standing his ground against an attacker.

What this country needs is to eliminate the brain-dead masses from the jury pools and ONLY allow intelligent people to preside.

Samuel Wilson said...

Who gets to write the juror test?

While I remain opposed to the verdict, I don't think it's necessarily stupid for a juror to believe that Zimmerman didn't deserve to get his head beaten in for getting out of his vehicle. But what Zimmerman deserved from Martin and what he deserved from the jury are two different things. He may have had no choice but to shoot because he sucks as a fighter, but that doesn't mean he had a right to kill with impunity in those circumstances. Any law that confers such a right is unjust.

Anonymous said...

I think that what we really need is professional jurors. People who are trained to wade through the emotional baggage lawyers love to lug into court; people who have at least a basic knowledge of forensics and police procedure. They would travel around a "circuit", rather than be based at a particular location.

Samuel Wilson said...

If they're government employees they'll automatically be suspect. The only way to do this is through a civil-service style test system so that you qualify by passing and don't depend on a political appointment. It'll have to be life tenure for the same reason; they can't be vulnerable to partisanship or the whims of an election season. Historically the jury system has been seen more as a safeguard against tyranny than as an efficient instrument for determining and meting out justice. The two goals aren't always compatible.