America must be better than this

The Trayvon Martin story is now getting media attention, and I’m glad to see that. When I originally got an email about his story, asking me to sign an online petition calling for an investigation into what happened, I signed it without a second thought. It really was the least that I could do, putting my name and email address on the record as being opposed to the murder of  someone who hadn’t done anything wrong.

I wish this story had never happened in the first place, and that Trayvon Martin was still walking the earth, but that’s not reality. I also wish that George Zimmerman had been arrested and charged with murder, but that’s not reality either. So where we are right now is that an unarmed young man is dead, and nobody is being held responsible, even though there’s no doubt about who killed him. And there’s not much doubt about why, either.

How this plays out will be interesting. I hope it’s more than just a shouting match about gun rights. This kid and his family deserve better than that. And I hope it doesn’t fade away after a couple of days, like so many news stories seem to do in this culture. This family will never get Trayvon back again, so for the media, or the public, to see this as a two or three-day story would be wrong.

If Zimmerman did nothing wrong, it sends an unmistakable message to anyone and everyone in this nation: If you have a gun, and you decide that someone is a threat to you, you can go ahead and shoot that person in self-defense, without any legal ramifications. You get to play judge, jury, and executioner.

George Zimmerman can–and should–be sued for killing Trayvon Martin in civil court. He should be deprived of every dime that he ever had, and every dime he will ever hope to make. But society–that’s all of us–should have the first say-so in the way that Zimmerman is punished. And if society punts in this situation, it will only embolden others with similar thought patterns as Zimmerman’s to take actions against those that they consider “suspicious.” It will literally become open season in America, on African American males most directly but, in the final analysis, on every last one of us.

This simply can’t be allowed to happen. But without an arrest, and without a prosecution for murder–rather than some lesser offense–that’s the message being sent out right now. Any illusions that I ever had about progress being made in this country, as embodied in President Barack Obama, have started to melt away in the face of George Zimmerman’s self-appointed neighborhood watch program.

I send my best wishes to the Martin family. That won’t undo what has been taken away from them, but it’s nearly all I can do at this time. I can also speak out, and I’m doing that here in the hope that a handful of people will read this online.

I studied history in college and in graduate school, and I learned that America tolerated a lot of bad things for a very long time. But how much it has grown over the course of my lifetime will be revealed by what it tolerates–or does not tolerate–today.

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