I have been somewhat reluctant to write about the death of Trayvon Martin. This is not because of a great uncertainly regarding the ethics of the matter but rather an uncertainty regarding the facts.
In this case, the ethics are potentially fairly clear. If Zimmerman simply killed Martin without justification, then he clearly acted wrongly.If Zimmerman acted merely in self defense, then he was not in the wrong.
There is, of course, also the real possibility that the death resulted from both Zimmerman and Martin acting in ways that seemed quite justified to each of them and thus it could be the case that neither person was completely in the wrong. To be specific, Zimmerman might have sincerely believed that Martin posed a legitimate threat to the community and acted to address that threat. Martin, of course, might have been acting in complete innocence and became convinced that Zimmerman was stalking him with the intent to attack him. In this scenario, both people would be acting from self-defense as each would legitimately believe that his life was in unwarranted danger from another person.
While, as of this writing, the facts of what occurred during the final confrontation are not known, quite a bit is known about what led up to the tragic event.
It has recently been revealed that Martin had been suspended from school because an empty bag that apparently had contained marijuana was found in his possession. As such, this is one reason why Martin was there rather than where he normally would be. While this lends some credence to Zimmerman’s view that there was “something wrong” with Martin (that is, he might have been high), even if Martin was high, this does not justify Zimmerman shooting him. After all, a person being high does not, in itself, present a danger that warrants an act of violent self-defense. As such, even if Martin was high, then this would not (by itself) entail that Zimmerman killed him in legitimate self-defense.
It might, of course, be contended that if Martin was acting suspiciously then Zimmerman would have the right to be justly concerned about his presence in the area. This is a legitimate point and if Martin was acting suspiciously, then Zimmerman was acting in a morally acceptable way to investigate. In fact, such a concern for the safety of the community could be regarded as morally commendable.
However, there is the question of how far that concern should extend to action. The 911 calls indicate clearly that the police told Zimmerman to stop following Martin.
On the face of it, after Zimmerman had done his duty of alerting the police of his suspicion, he should have (as the police said) stopped following Martin. After all, Zimmerman is a private citizen and not a police officer. As such, Zimmerman lacks the training of a police officer, the legal authority of a police officer and (rather importantly) lacks the means by which to identify himself as a legitimate officer of the law. As such, when Zimmerman was following Martin, it seems reasonable to believe that from Martin’s perspective he was being followed by some guy in a car. Even if Zimmerman had identified himself as part of a neighborhood watch, Martin would have no reason to believe that claim and certainly no reason to accept that as proof of legal authority.
While, as noted above, key facts of the case are still not known, it is known that despite being told to stop following Martin, Zimmerman ended up in a situation in which he was allegedly struck by Martin and then apparently shot and killed Martin. Given that at the start of the encounter Zimmerman was in a car and Martin was on foot, it would seem that Zimmerman could have easily avoided Martin. This seems to suggest that Zimmerman forced the encounter with Martin. Since Zimmerman is not police officer, Martin would have had no reason to think that Zimmerman was acting with legal authority and hence a plausible case can be made that Martin believed he was being pursued and threatened to a degree that put his life in danger. As such, it could very well have been Martin who was using force in self defense.
It might be objected that citizens should have the right to pursue and question people they regard as suspicious. After all, citizens do have the right to self defense and citizens should protect their community.
While self-defense is a right and citizens should act to protect each other, this is distinct from pursuing and questioning people. It is one thing if a person is clearly posing a threat but quite another to take on an investigatory role that can easily escalate. For example, if someone is punching my neighbor or trying to break into her house while she is there, then I would have legitimate grounds to intervene because there is an immediate threat and waiting for the police to arrive could result in her being injured or killed.
However, if I happen to see someone in public I merely think is suspicious and I go and harass that person, then I am not acting in response to a clear and immediate threat. Rather I am merely acting upon a suspicion and my behavior could legitimately be regarded as threatening. After all, merely seeming suspicious is not a crime nor is it a threat that warrants acting in self defense.
I would, of course, be within my rights to ask such a person a question or two-but they would equally be within their rights to ignore me. After all, as a citizen I have no right to compel other people to answer my questions. I do, however, have the right to contact the police and they can, if they think my concern has merit, come to sort things out. After all, that is what the police are for. This case, sadly, shows why private citizens should not attempt to take on the role of the police-even if they are part of a neighborhood watch. This is not to say that citizens should not take an active role in protecting the community, but rather to say that citizens should be aware of the limits of what they should be doing. After all, while citizens do have the right to protect their community, they do not have the right to act as if they have police powers. That is why we have a state and a legal system.