According to a report yesterday on WFTV, the FBI may charge George Zimmerman with a hate crime:
Zimmerman admitted to killing Martin in February during a confrontation. However, he claims the shooting was in self-defense. He’s facing a second-degree murder charge, which carries a maximum possible sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole. But if Zimmerman is charged and found guilty of a federal hate crime involving murder, he could face the death penalty.
When the “Justice for Trayvon Martin” Facebook page reported this news, in two separate posts, the excitement was palpable. At the time I sat down to write this, last night, their initial post that linked to the news story was shared 270 times, drew 1,455 Likes, and was commented upon 306 times. The second post, with its shares, Likes, and comments, is screencaptured above.
The Tumblr community reacted as well, with one post linking to the story drawing nearly 1,500 Likes and Reblogs as of this writing.
The reaction from those who have commented is largely supportive of killing George Zimmerman and, more often than not, the language that’s employed is positively dripping with brutality.
Here are some responses from Tumblr to the question of whether another death is really the answer:
Because yes. It is the answer.
Then this one:
This isn’t the f*%king 40s anymore. Anyone who kills a black child should have the full brunt of the law smashed down on their d&$k
My humanity does not diminish for my wanting of this man’s death. All I want is justice. In this case, an eye for an eye is not enough. I need limb for limb and blood for blood. Because this is something bigger than Trayvon. While this is about getting him his justice, there are so many others who have never, and will never, get theirs. Make an example of Zimmerman. Show these white supremacist douchef*%ks that if you kill ours, you’ll get yours, and it will not be by vigilante justice but by the very system you uphold, that always protects you. It will come for you, too, because you should no longer hide behind your privilege and racism. So, no, I do not care if it seems callous that I wish death on a person. Zimmerman did what a lot of you apologists would do, and he deserves proper punishment. Time will not change him. He had time. He chose to hide. He chose to play the victim. He chose to play all the angles to pain his victim as the antagonist. I have no care in this world for this mans health, happiness, sanity, or redemption. Let the pits of Hell swallow him whole.
I don’t necessaily wish Zimmerman the death penalty, but I couldn’t bat an eyelash if that’s where his fate lead. What a disgusting, vile stain on the lineage on mankind. This man stalks a child, lies about the events that ensued later that night, runs away, cutting off all contact from his family and lawyers, capitalizes off of his heinous crime and has the audacity to look a mother in the eyes and say “I’m sorry about the loss of your child”, a loss .. (as if Trayvon is an expendable commodity, which is probably what he thought when he killed him), instead of “I’m sorry I killed your child”. I can’t even begin to describe to sheer horror that runs through my soul when I think there are people that could be that hateful. How can I feel sympathy for such a monster? Take him away, alleviate the world of such a horrid individual.
kill him! kill the piece of s^$t, he doesn’t deserve to live.
And this one:
i’d save the state some money and do it for them
I’m pretty much an eye for an eye type of person but I don’t care what happens to him. You can kill him or throw him to the wolves doesn’t really matter
f&#k yes. off with his head and put that b#%ch on stake to make an example of him. make him the sacrifice! just like he did Trayvon, and then pray the devil back to hell.
And, of course, this:
yep he doesn’t get to breathe, he doesn’t get to live, unless your alternative is a life time of actual toruture and not throwing his ass in a cell, unless you plan on starving him to death, or trying to get him the closest he can to dying by doing some insanely cruel punishment, then my answer stands the mothaf%#ka should die.
This is all disturbing enough to warrant comment. But it gets really interesting when a few people step in and voice opposition to the carnival of vengeance proposed by people who claim they want justice. Anyone who opposes the idea that Zimmerman is a monster who needs to be tortured and/or killed is immediately accused of derailing the conversation or of being a racist who supports Zimmerman.
But this is just a way of shutting out ideas that might be challenging or difficult.
I’ve devoted a lot of time on this blog to the argument that all of our triumphalism about justice isn’t much more than a very thin veneer covering our real feelings about getting our revenge on someone who hurt us. This, then, is one more example in a long line.
If there’s one thing on which most Americans seem to agree, it’s that a celebration is in order when people are killed. Of course, it’s not just any killing that we like; it’s executions. In the past year, in person, in print, and online, we have come together to publicly rejoice at the deaths of Osama bin Laden, Anwar al-Awlaki, and Muammar Gaddafi. But we’re not only interested in the executions of terrorists and tyrants overseas; a crowd also vigorously cheered the hundreds of executions over which Rick Perry has presided in Texas. There’s just something about death that makes us stand up and applaud … or worse, as those who crave George Zimmerman’s blood helpfully highlight.
There is, in short, something distinct and distictly unpleasant about the way in which Americans think about justice.
When I think about justice, I tend to reflect back on something Socrates said in Plato’s Republic:
[I]f someone asserts that it’s just to give what is owed to each man—and he understands by this that harm is owed to enemies by the just man and help to friends—the man who said it was not wise. For he wasn’t telling the truth. For it has become apparent to us that it is never just to harm anyone (335e).
I recognize that this makes me somewhat unusual, both because I turn to a text written thousands of years ago when I think about contemporary issues and because the vast majority of people seem to think exactly the opposite about justice. For most people, justice involves some sort of gut feeling rather than the sort of reasoned argument that Socrates uses to arrive at his position. It tends to involve someone getting what he deserves and so, when it comes to George Zimmerman, this means exacting vengeance. Thus, when Americans see someone getting what he deserves, being paid back in kind for the harm he has done, they rejoice.
But, of course, I think it’s a mistake to simply equate justice with vengeance, both because I have yet to hear a persuasive argument against Socrates’ claim and because vengeance elevates the worst in us at the expense of what is best.
Instead, I am reminded of Portia’s speech to Shylock in The Merchant of Venice:
The quality of mercy is not strain’d, / It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven / Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest; / It blesseth him that gives and him that takes: / ’Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes / The throned monarch better than his crown; / His sceptre shows the force of temporal power [….] It is an attribute to God himself; / And earthly power doth then show likest God’s / When mercy seasons justice (IV.1).
Even though Shylock believes that harming his enemy accords with both justice and his own best interest, Portia argues that any understanding of justice that is bereft of mercy or compassion can never, ultimately, be in one’s best interest:
Though justice be thy plea, consider this, / That, in the course of justice, none of us / Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy; / And that same prayer doth teach us all to render / The deeds of mercy (IV.1).
At bottom, then, it’s the distinct lack of compassion that’s bothering me when I see our increasingly ghoulish displays of glee at the prospect of someone’s death (even when that person has done something terrible). They highlight either an inability or an unwillingness to see the humanity in others and, consequently, yield a diminution of our own humanity. It would be easier for us if there were evil people in the world, rather than normal people who do terrible things. But this is a fiction, one that keeps us clinging to our occasional use of the death penalty despite the fact that it doesn’t accomplish much, that it’s bad public policy, and that it brutalizes us as a society.
When people ran into the streets and cheered Osama bin Laden’s death as if their hometown team had won the World Series, I wrote that the singing and flag-waving demeaned us by highlighting the extent to which the culture of vengeance pervades our society. When a crowd of people cheered about the deaths of more than two hundred of their fellow citizens, I wrote that the justice they were cheering could only be the kind that was done to someone else: “Never to them, never to anyone they care about or have even met.”
And now, when so many people have prematurely tried, convicted, and sentenced George Zimmerman to death with such joy, I’m reminded once again how far removed we are from a time when we might conceive of justice as more than simply the paying back of violence with violence. When we gloat over the dead bodies we’ve managed to pile up — regardless of the reason that led to those deaths — we’re really celebrating the basest part of our nature. As Socrates reminds us:
Leontius, the son of Aglaion, was going up from the Piraeus under the outside of the North Wall when he noticed corpses lying by the public executioner. He desired to look, but at the same time he was disgusted and made himself turn away; and for a while he struggled and covered his face. But finally, overpowered by the desire, he opened his eyes wide, ran toward the corpses and said: “Look, you damned wretches, take your fill of the fair sight” (439e-440a).
The problem for Americans today, of course, is that we’re not even having this struggle with ourselves. We immediately lamented the fact that we weren’t given any pictures of bin Laden’s body, we passed around pictures of Gaddafi’s corpse like they were actually pictures from a dinner party, and we positively thrill at the prospect of tearing Zimmerman limb from limb for his crimes.
Personally, I’d like to imagine what our country might look like if it was populated by a citizenry that approached the deaths of others with a certain solemnity rather than one that celebrates the corpses produced by our government, to paraphrase Salon’s Glenn Greenwald.
Personally, I’d like to see Americans reflecting on the idea of justice and the proper role of compassion, on why corpses are the only possible validation for so many of us, on what a society that applauds a body count is ultimately missing, on the prejudices and privilege that allow us to cheer and sing when others die … but we’re so very far away from doing any of those things right now because, despite all the killing that’s happening all around us and in our names, our bloodlust somehow still hasn’t been sated.