Friday, April 6, 2012

The State vs George Zimmerman (and Trayvon Martin)

Any take on the shooting of Trayvon Martin should start with an obvious — but often missing — disclaimer: I don’t know exactly what happened in Sanford, Florida on the night of February 26, 2012.

It’s likely to the point of near certainty that you don’t either. Even the people closest to the events have only partial knowledge at their disposal, and the rest of us necessarily access that knowledge indirectly. We’re reduced to choosing from between competing narratives, each of us most likely to choose the one which best matches our own biases.

Was Zimmerman the heroic community watchman, acting in self-defense as he was menaced by Trayvon Martin, thug of the week? Or was Martin the innocent victim murdered by Zimmerman, an over-zealous wannabe cop at best and perhaps even a racist hooligan?

Either way, we should recognize one important fact in all of this: Government has thus far played no constructive role in the matter, and in fact has created an environment in which incidents of this type are more likely to happen and less likely to be justly resolved.

If we assume the worst of Zimmerman — that he attacked and murdered an innocent young black man without cause or provocation — we need look no further than America’s police culture for his excuse.

American police gun down hundreds, possibly thousands of innocent civilians each year, (for obvious reasons, they don’t keep such statistics, or at least don’t share those statistics with us — we have to comb the newspapers ourselves and try to keep rough running totals) many if not most of them people of color, and almost always with total impunity (yes, I know racism isn’t always “structural,” but let’s not ignore cases where it clearly is).

Were Zimmerman a sworn officer with a badge instead of just a neighborhood watch volunteer, there’s every likelihood that we wouldn’t even know his identity at this point. The local police department would refuse to release it (only mere civilians get their names publicized when they’re accused of crimes) and put him on paid “administrative leave” while they conduct an “internal investigation,” inevitably clearing him of all wrongdoing. And absent some high-dollar lawyering up by his victim’s family, that would be the end of it.

Additionally, as libertarian author J. Neil Schulman notes, Martin was disarmed in advance. At 17, he was legally forbidden to own or carry a firearm with which to defend himself. The state knowingly and intentionally left him at Zimmerman’s mercy. And had the situation been reversed, Martin would no doubt have learned that race and age become two-way streets when prosecutors see their shot at some limelight: As a black male, he’d have been charged before the gun cooled, and he’d almost certainly have been tried “as an adult.”

Supposing, on the other hand, that Zimmerman is the innocent party, his case is a perfect example of what American “justice” has become.

The local police found no grounds to charge him with a crime. They accepted his version of events and wrote off the shooting as a justifiable act of self-defense. They may or may not have been correct in that assessment, but nobody gets it right every time, right? As Benjamin Franklin said, “That it is better 100 guilty Persons should escape than that one innocent Person should suffer, is a Maxim that has been long and generally approved.”

But this isn’t Franklin’s America. These days, if there’s a sufficiently loud hue and cry from a powerful (and usually well-organized) political constituency, well, one level of government or another will find something to charge you with. And if they can’t get a conviction, then they’ll find something else to charge you with. And if that doesn’t work, stand by to be harassed to bankruptcy and quite likely to your grave. If you don’t believe me, ask OJ Simpson, Laurence Powell or Stacey Koon.

The shooting of Martin by Zimmerman is an ugly thing in itself, whatever the circumstances that led up to it. But it’s also a perfect example of the idiocy of vesting a monopoly on “justice” in the state. We’re never going to get every case right, but the incentives of monopoly government inherently tend toward maximizing both the number of cases we get wrong and the severity of the consequeneces.

Government failed Trayvon Martin, arguably leading to his death. Now government is failing George Zimmerman, inexorably leading to his likely imprisonment and his certain hardship.

These failures are not anomalies. They are what the state is and what it does. We can have political government or we can have the possibility of justice, but we can’t have both.

by Thomas L. Knapp at Center for a Stateless Society under Creative Commons

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