Column: Zimmerman - A trial that was all about race

Reuters News
Posted: Jul 14, 2013 3:28 PM

By Nicholas Wapshott

(Reuters) - Will George Zimmerman's trial for the killing of Trayvon Martin and the all-too predictable acquittal change anything?

Will it prevent racial profiling in the future? No. Will it keep guns out of the hands of reckless and feckless flakes? No. Will it ensure that from now on gun licenses are administered more closely? No. Above all, will it prevent such needless killings from happening again? Certainly not.

It would have been encouraging to imagine that the loss of Martin's young life would change something, but it won't. That is the real calamity of this familiar American tragedy.

Both the prosecution and defense have insisted that the case had nothing to do with race but that is a legal fiction that is hard to credit. Race is such a toxic issue that both sides risked everything if they introduced the topic and let themselves open to the accusation of playing the race card. Race is, however, the key to understanding why this killing has received such widespread attention not only here but across the world.

The United States itself has been on trial. It is a shame the nation has been represented by such a wretched example.

The shooting to death of Martin may likely have gone without notice outside of Sanford, Florida, had race not been the key ingredient. As it was, a powerful national campaign of indignation pressured the Sanford police and Florida legal authorities to eventually take a second look and treat the killing as murder rather than another routine summary execution allowed under the state's pernicious "stand-your-ground" law.

Until the authorities reconsidered, Zimmerman had been questioned by police and allowed to return home without charge. On being obliged to weigh the full circumstances of the case, police changed their tune, charged Zimmerman, and deemed him so likely a flight risk he was placed under $1 million bail. Those interested in justice for all may well ask how many other similar tragedies go unnoticed and how many killers are released without due investigation.

Once again, race in America informs a needless personal and national catastrophe that draws attention to the quotidian inequities that undermine true democracy.

It might have been expected that President Barack Obama's election might in itself ease this perennial curse, but it is plainly going to take many more years and perhaps many more similar deaths before the truth that all men are created equal is accepted by all Americans to be self-evident. Polls show that rather than make our country more tolerant, the president's skin color has led to an increase in racism.

There is little ground for optimism either that the passage of time will gradually make America more tolerant. The younger people are, the more it is imagined they will have progressive attitudes on race and other social issues. But Zimmerman was himself of mixed race, with a father of German descent and his mother a Peruvian. He was raised as a Roman Catholic and is aged just 29. To be young and Christian today is plainly no protection against hatred contaminating the mind.

Young Martin's death should cause us to stop and consider the broader principles of policing and justice. The reckless pursuit of an unarmed black boy in a hoodie by a vigilante inspired by suspicions based on race shows how dangerously unjust it is to use racial profiling as a means to detain suspected criminals.

At a federal level, racial profiling is forbidden, even by the Transport Security Administration (TSA), whose principal purpose is to protect us from terrorism and who might claim with justification that perpetrators of domestic terrorist acts have been, almost without exception, young adult Muslim men. Yet in cities like New York, which likes to boast it is a melting pot that welcomes everyone whatever they look like, racial profiling is a daily occurrence defended with vigor by the mayor and the chief of police.

Why do such otherwise wise leaders imagine that when it is the police who jump to conclusions based on race it is any different to the travesty of justice that took place in Sanford, Florida? "Because it works," they suggest. "Because we find criminals that way. Because it saves lives." Are they really saying that African-Americans are more likely to commit crimes than others? If so, let them explain exactly why they believe that is the case. And let them provide the facts that lead them to such a sorry conclusion.

As we have seen from the furor surrounding the profiling of political groups by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), short cuts based on generalizations about sections of the population prompt widespread fear and suspicion of the authorities and do an injustice to those innocently going about their business. If the IRS used the excuses "Because it works," and "Because we find criminals that way," they would be rightly ridiculed.

The Martin killing also raises profound questions about gun laws. Zimmerman applied to become a police officer, a childhood ambition, but he was turned down, ostensibly on the grounds his credit record was inadequate. Perhaps they perceived a driven character intent on less than an even-handed application of the law.

Rejected and dejected, Zimmerman persisted in his fantasy of becoming a heroic crime-buster and enrolled as an eager student of criminal justice at Seminole State College, cramming on the intricacies of Florida's now notorious stand-your-ground law, a fact he flatly denied to police. He then volunteered to patrol his neighborhood for likely thieves and muggers. It is a pity he chose not to explain his motivations in open court.

To further his failed ambition to be a superhero, he obtained a concealed weapons license that allowed him to carry the pistol loaded with hollowed-point bullets designed to cause maximum injury with which he shot Martin at point-blank range through the heart.

Perhaps, when someone whose personal history reveals a vigilante mentality and an obsession with the violent pursuit of criminals is freely granted such a license, supporters of the National Rifle Association (NRA) have a point: background checks have little effect on gun violence when they are so easy to obtain. The alternative would be for background checks to be thorough and effective which is easier said than achieved.

On the night he shot Martin dead, Zimmerman ignored the terms of his concealed gun license, which restricts the handling of a gun within a short radius of a home or car, and repeatedly ignored the instructions of the police despatcher to stop following the young man he suspected of being up to no good. Again, conditions of a concealed gun license, however restrictive, mean little if they can be so flagrantly flouted without penalty.

It is deeply depressing to conclude that this dark night in the wicked story of race in America will amount to nothing. Yet there may be a lasting tribute to Martin in that his death may make such thoughtless killings less likely in the future.

Fantasists with hate in their hearts and guns hidden in their belts may think twice before they set off to make a name for themselves. Zimmerman's name will be remembered, all right, but not in the way he had hoped.

And the name Trayvon Martin will resonate through the years as another wasted young life on the long road to liberty and justice for all.

(Nicholas Wapshott is the former New York bureau chief of The Times of London. Previously, he was editor of the Saturday Times of London, and founding editor of The Times Magazine. He is a regular broadcaster on MSNBC, PBS, and FOX News. He is the author of "Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher: A Political Marriage" (2007). His "Keynes Hayek: The Clash That Defined Modern Economics" was published by W.W.Norton in October. )

(Nicholas Wapshott)