On the 13th of July the jury in the Trayvon Martin murdercase found George Zimmerman not guilty of tracking, stalking and murdering an unarmed 17 year-old in Sanford, Florida. The injustice of this verdict is attested to by peaceful rallies protesting in 100 US cities.
When reading the coverage of the trial I was struck by a thread running through all of the public comments on online news sites. Predictably there were two sides. One decrying the verdict and the pointless loss of a young life, raising the race card like a soccer umpire cautioning a violent and unrepentant offender. The other side vehemently defended the not guilty verdict. What struck me, however, was an underlying assumption common to every one of the 'pro-Zimmerman' comments, every single one on over a dozen different sites - that it is perfectly fine to shoot and kill another human being dead.
A shocking statement in itself, but one made even more disturbing by the tone and trend of this 'side of the argument' towards not just self defence and a comfortable certainty that it's fine to kill someone, but that the laws on this determine the morality, rather than the reverse. That a law which allows 'shoot to kill' means taking a life is completely justified and requires no further thought whatsoever.
In a healthy culture laws are an extension of social morality. We prohibit behaviour that goes beyond moral boundaries. When this is in balance our laws serve the principle of justice. Immoral behaviour, violence and property destruction and dispossession are proscribed in law along with the appropriate sanctions. When social values and social morality changes, groups who have argued for a change in the laws will see public opinion sway their way, and eventually public pressure will force a change in law.
A current and classic example of this process is the global shift in laws regarding homosexuality and marriage. The feeling that gay marriage is not only a just extension to a minority of rights enjoyed by the majority, but a right that should be enshrined in and protected by law is a current global phenomenon.
Conservative politicians everywhere are finding themselves out of touch with the vox populi, the voice, and will, of the people on this. Their conservatism is often a positive restraint on the 'enthusiasms of the mob' easily whipped up by demagogues and media barons. But when the people genuinely change their opinion politicians must follow or become electorally obsolete.
This is not the case with the 'Stand Your Ground' and 'Castle Doctrine' laws (the right to use deadly force in your own home). Originating in Florida (and aggressively promoted by ALEC*) these laws are now in place in over thirty US states. These laws go far beyond justice and leave morality trailing in their wake. They put justice and social morality to one side and arm the citizen with the right to judge, condemn and execute while protected by law. This isn't just rhetoric, it's already happening:
In November 2007, in Pasadena, Texas, 61 year-old Joe Horn shot and killed two men who were attempting to rob his neighbour's house. He rang '911' and reported the crime, and the discussion continued as follows:
Joe Horn: “I’ve got a shotgun; do you want me to stop them?”
Pasadena emergency operator: “Nope. Don’t do that. Ain’t no property worth shooting somebody over, O.K.?”
Joe Horn: “But hurry up, man. Catch these guys will you? Cause, I ain’t going to let them go.”
Mr. Horn then said he would get his shotgun.
The operator said, “No, no.” But Horn said: “I can’t take a chance of getting killed over this, O.K.? I’m going to shoot.”
The operator told him not to go out with a gun because officers would be arriving.
“O.K.,” said Horn, “But I have a right to protect myself too, sir,” adding, “The laws have been changed in this country since September the first, and you know it.”
The operator said, “You’re going to get yourself shot.”
Mr. Horn replied, “You want to make a bet? I’m going to kill them. I ain’t gonna let them get away with this shit ... They got a bag of loot … Here it goes buddy, you hear the shotgun clicking and I’m going.”
The operator then heard: “Move, you’re dead.” Followed by three gunshots.
“I had no choice," said Horn when he got back on the line. “They came in the front yard with me, man.”
You can listen to a complete recording of the call here:
The two men, who were carrying a sack with cash and jewellery, were shot in the back. Both died. A Texas Grand Jury found Mr Horn had no case to answer. He was free to go.
This decision implies that the 'Castle doctrine' embodies not just the right to self defence in your own home, nor the legal right to kill to protect person and property, but the opportunity to deliberately seek the death of others as a personal choice, a right to kill for personal satisfaction within the law. Joe Horn is not an isolated case. Nor is his attitude, which says the laws now serve me. My right to arms includes the right to kill my fellow citizens if they offend me. All I have to do is claim I felt under threat. The right to free speech entitles me to lie to protect myself. My rights are absolute, and sacred. Cross me and I will kill you.
Joe Horn being lauded by Fox News:
This is a society in moral free-fall, so driven by fear and hatred that it is fragmenting into tiny personal fiefdoms of property and the right to kill others to defend it.
There is a serious systemic issue here. When law and morality are out of balance one will move to accommodate the other, driven by a kind of social cognitive dissonance. In progressive reforms laws reflect changes in public morality. In reactionary and regressive reforms public morality will accommodate itself to repressive laws. Laws that provide protection for our baser instincts license behaviour previously held in check by tradition, social custom and social institutions.
When the law shifts the goalposts towards the bottom of the barrel behaviours that were once beyond the pale soon emerge, with those with a taste for violence and hatred soon claiming the moral high ground. Soon society is brutalised, social relationships are vested with threat and animus, and social institutions that reflect positive moral values lose their standing and we are thrust into the realm of the shock-jock listener. A world full of hatred, paranoia, misogyny, and xenophobia, where wilful ignorance, bigotry and self-interest are elevated to the level of supreme moral virtues.
The justification for this is always the same: a crude Social Darwinist view that man is by nature violent, competitive and crass and any attempt to claim otherwise is derided as sentimental and fantastic. That in our true nature we are 'red in tooth and claw'.
Civilisation and its moral and social values are what separate us from other animals. The Social Darwinist derides this as wishful thinking and that a crude form of 'natural justice' demands we behave as brutes, that competition is the only fact of life and that nothing is sacred: not family, not society, not virtue or ethics or any moral stand against the barbaric and brutal.
I say no. I say we must fight for every principle, every choice to rise above a base nature, every instinct for compassion, empathy and generosity of spirit. The struggle will be endless. As long as man has a baser nature there will be those who are too lazy to see beyond it, and too selfish to think beyond their own needs. But civilisation wasn't built by these people, and while any of us defends humanity's higher calling they will not prevail.
Civilisation belongs to the civilised. The brutes and their mercenary mouthpieces will always be limited by the short-sighted self-interest they claim as their nature. If anything separates humans from other animals it is our ability to rise above the instinct for blood and to seek what justice we can in an imperfect world.
* FOOTNOTE: ALEC: the American Legislative Exchange Council.
ALEC is the 40 year old American Legislative Exchange Council, originally the Conservative Caucus of State Legislators. ALEC's website says members believe "government closest to the people" is "fundamentally more effective, more just, and a better guarantor of freedom than the distant, bloated federal government in Washington, D.C."
ALEC is funded by industries whose profitability is enhanced and whose corporate responsibility is minimised by ALEC laws. ALEC promotes legislation to restrict voter access through ID laws, limit corporate accountability (on asbestos, fracking and tobacco health claims for example), limit taxation and government oversight (on environmental protection, for example), extend police powers and punitive laws (for the private prisons industry), and promote gun rights and ownership (for gun lobby corporations).
In 2012 ALEC wrote to the Australian government stating that US legislators opposed plain cigarette packaging and that generic cigarettes increase rather than decrease cigarette consumption.