I’ve said very little about the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin situation for a variety of reasons. First, I don’t have much interest in crime stories. Second, I don’t bring any particular expertise to the table with respect to ferreting out the actual facts – and these are what actually matter if the question we care about is “what happened?” and “is George Zimmerman guilty?” I guess I agreed with Steve Sailer from the beginning that this was a “depressing” local police blotter matter that got elevated to national attention – but unlike him, that made me more inclined to ignore it rather than comment obsessively on it. I think the only aspect of the whole fracas I’ve commented on is my friend John Derbyshire’s infamous column on the subject, which I commented on mainly because I know him personally.
But my goat was got by Pat Buchanan’s most recent post elsewhere on the site, asking the question: what if George Zimmerman walks?
Buchanan transparently believes that Zimmerman is not guilty. He has no reason to be so sure of that, any more than those who are convinced of his guilt have reason for their certainty. It’s clear that Zimmerman and Martin got into an altercation. We don’t know for sure who started it. We don’t know for sure why. It’s entirely possible that the confrontation was initiated by Zimmerman, which would be entirely consistent with the physical evidence Buchanan talks about, and that Martin was the one acting (as he thought) in self defense. We can’t interrogate him because he’s dead.
Nonetheless, his question is not an idle one. The jury’s job is to determine whether the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Based solely on the information that has been brought to light so far, it doesn’t strike me as improbable that a jury could conclude that guilt cannot be determined to that standard of certainty. What happens if they can’t?
The reason we have a criminal justice system is precisely to remove the felt need for private justice – for revenge, personal and collective. Where individuals or distinct groups become convinced that the justice system does not provide adequate recourse, the desire for private vengeance increases. In some cases, that desire boils over into violent action. Such action is unjustified, but that doesn’t mean it is incomprehensible, or that it won’t happen.
That doesn’t mean it will, though, either. It behooves the authorities not to presume too much – or too little. The right answer to perceptions of unfairness is conspicuous fairness, not retribution. If the standard of “justice” is conviction of acquittal, we’ve already lost; there is no chance for peace. A fair trial is the answer, regardless of the verdict – and the government, at the highest levels, should say so, and well in advance of a verdict. That communications campaign is as important as any preparation that local police departments might make.
And here’s the thing. To be able to conduct that communications campaign effectively, the government has to sound credible. Which means understanding why so many people were upset that Zimmerman wasn’t taken in in the first place.
In doing that job, Buchanan’s attempt – and he isn’t alone – to turn Zimmerman into a folk hero has been completely counter-productive. Assuming the goal is to increase confidence in the integrity of the trial, acquitting Zimmerman in the media is just as bad as convicting him. And if that isn’t the goal, then Buchanan has no business criticizing people who fanned the flames.