The setting in which I saw the George Zimmerman verdict come across the screen couldn’t have been more incongruous. Sitting at a bar, several beers in me already, and with baseball games and car races on either side, we had to read the close captioning on the television, since we never would have heard the words over the din of pop music blaring over the speakers. There’d been a buzz for about half an hour, ever since “VERDICT REACHED” appeared on the scroll at the bottom of the local channel, and it peaked when we saw “Not guilty” pop up, a mixture of disbelief, relief, and unsurprised resignation falling over the bar. It was that last camp that I fell into. “It’s a bad law,” I kept saying. And that’s the thing I think too many people screaming this morning about miscarriages of justice and travesties are missing.
The verdict handed down last night wasn’t the travesty. It merely reaped the foul crop Florida’s Stand Your Ground law planted eight years ago. As much as we may not like it, trials and juries are bound by the law, not by our personal feelings in the matter. We may have thought Casey Anthony was an irresponsible mother and generally terrible person, but you need more than that to convict her of murder. We may think George Zimmerman is at best an irresponsible moron and at worst a racist vigilante, but he’s subject to — and yes, protected by — the laws of the state. Would you want your fate in a courtroom decided by the backing of law, or by how people felt about you? That same consideration has to be extended to the most reprehensible of us or it protects none of us.
And as much responsibility as Zimmerman bears for the death of Trayvon Martin, any consequences for that responsibility have to be meted out under the law. Sadly, the Stand Your Ground law covers him in this case. It was the right verdict under an absolutely horrible piece of lawmaking that essentially allows you to pick a fight and then kill the other person if you start to lose. So any anger at the jury is misplaced. They were put in handcuffs, thrown in the ocean, and told to swim. I get that there’s a sense that Martin’s death needs some sort of closure, some kind of retribution. And that the lifelong cloud of this almost certain to hang over Zimmerman is a poor substitute for that. But hurling anger at him or the jury or the defense attorneys is like shaking your fist at the ashes after your house has burned down.
We need to focus this anger on the cowboy lawmakers who thought basically turning Florida into the Wild West was a good idea. We need to bring our outrage to bear on the gun lobbies who are more concerned about using fear to manufacture customers. We need to use this emotion to fuel lasting change, not fleeting revenge. Finding Zimmerman guilty may have meant justice for Trayvon Martin, but only undoing the awful law that allowed Zimmerman to walk away will keep something like this from happening again. Otherwise, there will be more tragedies, more lost lives, more bitter harvests to reap.