Having some awareness of the concept and history of tragedy in the theater may be somewhat helpful, I think, in responding to an out-sized current event such as the George Zimmerman murder trial. Most people would assume that if the word “tragedy” were to be applied at all to this murder case, it would have to be used in reference to the victim, Trayvon Martin. Although I have no wish to minimize the enormity of what happened to Trayvon Martin or to suggest that George Zimmerman deserves to be perceived as some sort of equivalent victim of events, please bear with me, at least for a moment, as I suggest how the current emphases in tragic drama might provide a somewhat different framework for understanding George Zimmerman and what happened during this trial.
In classical and Elizabethan dramas, tragedy requires a noble protagonist brought down by a flaw that leads him to terrible ruin and great sorrow. But, in modernist and postmodernist dramas, tragedy typically involves a much more ordinary, miserable soul bedeviled by the consequences of his own delusions and bedeviling others with his refusal to face and to let go of those delusions.
As every talking head in the country focuses on the “not guilty” verdict in the trial and either applauds it as a just verdict and denounces it as a travesty, what has been lost is that George Zimmerman was doomed as soon as he pulled the trigger and killed Trayvon Martin with a bullet to his heart. In fact, Zimmerman was probably doomed long before that terrible night.
Whether you believe in karma or simply in the axiom that what goes around comes around, George Zimmerman was doomed not only because of what he did but also because of why he did it. Before his killing of Trayvon Martin put him in the national spotlight, George Zimmerman seemed to be a nobody who wanted desperately to be taken seriously for something, for anything. His frustrations at not being able to pursue a career in law enforcement were probably not the crux of his problems but a symptom of his problems. Beyond any other factors, his lack of good judgment seems to have been essentially what prevented him from becoming a police officer, and, in this case, it led him wrongly to profile Trayvon Martin as a criminal, wrongly to decide to ignore the dispatcher’s admonitions and to pursue Trayvon Martin on foot, and wrongly to conclude that a skinny seventeen-year-old carrying an iced tea and a bag of skittles represented a mortal threat to him. Of course, this last part may be giving the defense’s characterization of him much too much credence. Although it never emerged as a possibility in the trial, it seems quite clear that he may very well have pulled the trigger simply out of anger rather than out of fear.
Whatever his immediate reasons for pulling the trigger, George Zimmerman’s judgment was clearly colored by his desire to be perceived in some fashion as a hero, to gain the respect at least of his family and his neighbors by making sure that another criminal attempting to prey on them did not get away with it. I am guessing that he had played out such a scenario many times in his imagination for quite a long time before he pursued, confronted, and killed Trayvon Martin. But the case that his attorneys presented very clearly relied on a very different depiction of him as anything but a hero. In fact, to accept that George Zimmerman acted in self-defense, one has to accept a characterization of him as a weakling and a putz who, when everything that he had done seemed to backfire on him, had no alternative but to use his gun. The defense attorneys showed grainy pictures of Trayvon Martin taken by the 7-Eleven’s surveillance camera so that the female jurors would come to the conclusion that they would have been afraid of him. In effect, those attorneys were also saying that even if George Zimmerman may have thought that because he was carrying a gun, he had no reason to be afraid of Trayvon Martin, when the teenager actually confronted him, Zimmerman discovered that he was in fact more afraid of the teenager than the teenager seemed to be afraid of him, and being completely incapable of defending himself physically in any other way, he then felt that he had no alternative but to shoot the teenager through the heart.
If George Zimmerman had been convicted, he would have had to have been kept in isolation while imprisoned, for his own safety. For, given his crime and his personality, it seems very unlikely that he would have survived for six months in the general population of even a medium-security prison.
But one wonders how long he is now going to survive outside of prison. At some point, Zimmerman clearly became convinced that carrying a gun gave him an advantage over many of those who might cross his path and might think that they could take that opportunity to do him harm. Unfortunately for him, many of the people who have reason to feel outraged by this verdict are not progressives with an ideological aversion to carrying guns. When those who have been paying for his defense stop covering the cost of keeping him in a safe, undisclosed location, one wonders how he is going to resume any semblance of a normal life. How is he not going to be constantly looking over his shoulder whenever he steps outside his home? How will he be able even to walk past a set of open window curtains without flinching?
Moreover, given that he seemed to have very limited employment prospects before this killing, how probable is it that his notoriety will now improve his prospects? And how likely is it that he will be able to cope with the attendant frustration of being, in effect, a prisoner within his own skin? How likely is it that he will again exercise poor judgment and end up doing something that turns out to have been very stupid?
Before anyone rushes to condemn me for seeming to do so, I am certainly not suggesting that George Zimmerman deserves any sympathy because he avoided a prison term after killing someone who was completely innocent and unarmed. Nor am I advocating that anyone take justice into their own hands and attempt to avenge Trayvon Martin’s death by killing George Zimmerman. Nor am I advocating that those considering civil rights charges and civil cases against George Zimmerman simply leave him, instead, to whatever his fate might be.
What I am suggesting, however, is that to think that this whole sorry story is going to end with the jury’s verdict is to reduce it, largely because of the media coverage of it, to the equivalent of a reality show—in fact, as one season of an ongoing reality series that has included the O.J. Simpson murder trial, the O.J. Simpson civil trial, the O.J. Simpson armed robbery trial, Conrad Murray’s trial for the wrongful death of Michael Jackson, the Casey Anthony murder trial, and, most recently, the Jodi Arias murder trial. And if I have left out a trial that has particularly caught and retained your interest, I will not be at all surprised.
These televised trials are as far from the everyday realities of the criminal justice system in America as Trayvon Martin was from the hardcore gang-bangers that will now more justifiably haunt George Zimmerman’s waking thoughts and nightly dreams.
In fact, the mind-numbing media coverage of this trial has pretty much killed my interest in watching cable news, something that my wife had thought was next to impossible.
Nonetheless, two acquaintances have made remarks on the trial and the verdict that have stuck with me. (I would give them credit for their insights, but I doubt that they want whatever notoriety might come with being so acknowledged.)
One acquaintance said that she found the post-verdict news conferences more fascinating than the trial itself. Specifically, she wondered why the attorney who oversaw the state’s case but did not prosecute it seemed so relaxed and generally upbeat as she fielded questions from the media. I had noticed the incongruity in that attorney’s demeanor, but in the context of a trial full on incongruities, it seemed just another inexplicable detail. This acquaintance also observed that the defense attorneys seemed unusually preoccupied by the escalating threats against their client, and she suggested that they might be becoming increasingly worried about their own safety. Given that the actors who play unlikeable characters in television dramas are often approached in their everyday lives and berated for the things that their television characters have done, it occurred to me, because of her observation, that the defense attorneys’ concerns may be more warranted than they even now realize.
My other acquaintance made what I, and not he, will call another modest proposal on guns–referencing my earlier re-post of Daniel Akst’s op-ed in the Los Angeles Times in which he suggested, in a Swiftian mode, that schoolchildren be trained in the use of and then armed with progressively more powerful weapons, starting in kindergarten.
This acquaintance has suggested that progressives have probably taken the completely wrong approach to fighting the gun lobby. He believes that most people who carry guns do not view a gun as simply an equalizer against armed criminals and mass murderers, but, instead, as George Zimmerman seems to have done, they may view carrying a gun as providing a personal advantage over most of the people with whom they might come into conflict. Since only about a third of Americans now legally own guns but those people are accumulating larger and larger stockpiles of guns, my acquaintance suggested that many of the opponents of gun control are probably relying on most people not wanting to be armed—that is, their oft-repeated talking point that everyone should be armed is not really something that they are seriously advocating.
So, on the basis of that reasoning, my acquaintance’s proposal is that everyone who is against ordinary citizens being armed should commit to purchasing and carrying a gun. And since doing so immediately might serve to further enrich the gun manufacturers, he suggested that a progressively sponsored, non-profit gun manufacturer should be established, with the guns priced to produce revenues above costs that might then be directed to a fund for the victims of gun violence and their families. The basic idea is that if everyone is actually armed, there will be much less physical and psychological advantage to being armed, and the advocates of gun ownership will themselves likely start to press the case that the situation has finally gotten out of control.
In all honesty, my immediate response to this brainstorm was that it was too circularly counter-intuitive to be taken seriously. And yet, the more that I thought about it, the more that the whole idea started to have a certain appeal to me—though perhaps less as a practical proposal than as an ironic or a satiric concept.
But, frankly, what’s going on inside my head right now, at least in terms of these issues, might be analogous to those widely aired public-service commercials about drug abuse: in this case, this was my brain before the George Zimmerman murder trial, and this is my brain after the trial. The “before” picture might be the photo that is included beside my name in the list of contributors to this blog. But in the “after” picture, I will have Salvador Dali’s eyebrows and moustache, and I will be aiming at the camera lens a gun made out of solid milk chocolate that is very visibly melting into my grip.