In the whole swirling political/media uproar over Trayvon Martin's shooting, only two things are indisputably clear: A 17-year-old boy is dead, and George Zimmerman shot him.
Nothing we can do can bring Trayvon back. It's clear from all versions of this event that Trayvon did not deserve to die. It is not clear whether his death is a result of murder, manslaughter or what the law calls "justifiable homicide" -- a legal term for an intentional death that is not a criminal act.
The other thing we can know for sure is that this case has exploded in the media in part because it touches a raw nerve for every African-American in this country, but perhaps most especially African-American middle-class parents. Can they protect their sons? Will the law stand with them in this process?
If the answer is "no," then no African-American family in this country, however successful, however law-abiding, can feel safe.
If we don't empathize with this reaction on the part of black parents, we cannot in our turn be trusted or ask them to trust the legal process.
What we owe Trayvon and his grieving parents, and every other anxious parent in this case, is the truth.
Was it murder? Or justifiable self-defense?
That depends on uncovering what actually happened that night. We have only one process for discovering that truth, and it is the legal process. It is imperfect. But the last few weeks, if they have proven anything, have proven this: As a mechanism for uncovering truth and doing justice, trial by jury is infinitely superior to the barbaric ordeal of trial by media.
We live in very ugly postmodern times in terms of our public and media culture. Elites right and left have recognized clearly the power of "spin" as an ancillary to the great doctrine of Plato that poets are the real rulers of society.
Someone at NBC who edited the 911 tapes from that night was acting on that impulse: The narrative which serves the "larger purpose" is more important than the truth. Here is what NBC broadcast, what millions heard as truth:
Zimmerman: "This guy looks like he's up to no good. He looks black."
At rallies across the country, speakers refer to having heard these 911 tapes to confirm their worst fears: A good kid can be gunned down for "looking black" and the law does not care.
But here's what actually happened that night:
Zimmerman: "This guy looks like he's up to no good. Or he's on drugs or something. It's raining and he's just walking around, looking about."
Dispatcher: "OK, and this guy -- is he black, white or Hispanic?"
Zimmerman: "He looks black."
NBC's edit was a savage violation of not only the norms of journalism, but of basic human decency. NBC has issued a weak apology but zero explanation for how a mainstream, powerful, well-funded news organization could do this.
Crafting a narrative that allows you to seize power, or hurt your political enemies now appears more important to both right and left than what Plato called the most crucial task:
"Crucial indeed is the struggle, more crucial than we think -- the choice that makes us good or bad -- to keep faithful to righteousness and virtue in the face of temptation, be it of fame or money or power, or of poetry -- yes, even of poetry."
Or, I might add, journalism.
Arrest George Zimmerman. Not because I know or you know his actions were a crime, but because the legal process is only way we can possibly know the truth.
And without truth, there can be no justice.