Trayvon Martin and America’s conscience

Last week – and this week, still – America has been transfixed by the Trayvon Martin case. It has been the topic of news debate after news debate, and has been addressed by politicians, the President, church leaders and ordinary citizens, many thousands of whom have attended rallies and vigils. Why? Because this case has really needled America’s conscience, and has made Americans look very closely into their souls about why it happened – why a young man was shot and killed, and why no-one has of yet been held to account for this.

The facts – as far as they are discernible, and there is of course some dispute – are these: on 26th February, in Sanford Florida, 17 year-old Trayvon was shot and killed by George Zimmerman, a 28-year-old neighbourhood watch captain, as Trayvon returned from a local 7-Eleven after buying a bag of Skittles and iced tea. He was in a gated community – common in Florida – but had the right to be there, as he was visiting his father’s girlfriend. His death came after Mr Zimmerman had called 911, explaining that Trayvon, who was wearing a hoodie at the time, a pair of blue jeans, and red/white sneakers, looked suspicious. Zimmerman then pursued Trayvon even after he was told not to do so by the 911 dispatcher. When he approached Trayvon, the two got into a scuffle, resulting in Trayvon taking a bullet to the chest at point blank range. Zimmerman claimed that he shot Trayvon on the grounds of self-defence and has since been in hiding.

Florida authorities claim that the so-called ‘Stand Your Ground’ law passed in Florida in 2005 is the legal obstacle to the prosecution of Martin’s killer. Such laws permit someone to use deadly force, ie kill another human being, when he or she feels threatened by that individual’s behaviour. Enshrined in the American Constitution, after all, is the right to protect life and property. Many of the debates have focused on whether this was a racist act, and whether or not gun control would have made a difference; what America is beginning to realise, however, and is beginning to focus upon, is that this was a young human life – a life which has been tragically cut short. For a whole host of reasons – perhaps because we are so used to fictional violence, or perhaps because we feel so comfortable and protected in our own lifestyles that we feel at times immortal, or perhaps because we put ourselves first, before others – we seem to lose sight, too often, of the precious nature of human life. Nothing will bring back Trayvon Martin’s life – nothing at all. It is gone. The least we can do is to try to learn the lessons to ensure that it does not happen again.

And that is what America is realising.

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