As happens from time to time in this country, a tragic incident and the resulting high-profile court case serves as a touchstone for attitudes and perceptions about some of the deepest and most difficult questions we face as a society.
Such was the George Zimmerman case. It commanded attention beyond the usual sturm and prattle of talk TV because it nicked a historically sensitive and painful psychological nerve.
A six-person jury in Sanford found Zimmerman not guilty last week of all charges in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. We expect the public debate over Zimmerman’s guilt or innocence would have continued no matter the decision in court.
But the verdict seemed unquestionably legitimate. Judge Debra Nelson was tough, even-handed and fair. As much as one might question their tactics or style, both prosecuting and defense attorneys were competent and vigorous in pursuing their case.
The jury was sequestered, shielded from outside influences. From all appearances, the six women approached their civic duty with the utmost attentiveness and seriousness. They could not escape the reality that one young man’s life had been taken and another faced a severe loss of liberty. Their job was difficult; they acquitted themselves well.
Still, Trayvon Martin’s legacy will be intertwined with the issues raised. Such as:
• Why was Martin identified as a potential troublemaker on the night of Feb. 26, 2012? Race? Clothing? Both? Is this unusual?
• Was there any, or enough, justification to call police in the first place?
• Was Zimmerman’s pursuit of Martin as a neighborhood watch volunteer appropriate? Why didn’t he simply sit tight and let the real police handle any “situation”?
• What if the races of the protagonist and antagonist were reversed or different? If Zimmerman was black and Martin white? If both were white or both were black? Do we believe there would have been any difference?
• Why was Zimmerman armed? Is it ever appropriate for neighborhood watch volunteers to carry a loaded weapon?
• Do our easy-access and open-carry guns laws make lethal violence more likely?
• Was Zimmerman the victim of “politically correct” prosecution? Or was the public pressure to launch a prosecution an attempt to right an injustice? As we see it, Zimmerman should not have been carrying a loaded handgun as a neighborhood watch volunteer. That was wrong. Trained law enforcement officers should carry guns when doing law enforcement work — not untrained neighborhood volunteers. The consequences were tragic.
We can benefit by the public debate over such questions, though. Uncomfortable or not, the issues raised are necessary and profound, and the discussion may help us become a better nation of people. Whether or not justice was truly done here, its long-term pursuit still seems incomplete.