Ever since the nation learned the name Trayvon Martin, we’ve been deluged with a torrent of questions about the circumstances of his death brought about by the presentation of pieces of evidence, frequently taken in isolation: Did Martin attack George Zimmerman before being shot? What’s Zimmerman’s criminal history? Why was Martin suspended from school? Was the shooting racially motivated? Why did it take so long to contact Martin’s family when his cell phone was on him when he died? Who did witnesses hear crying for help?
These questions all have answers, and I don’t know them. If you’re reading this, you’re probably states away from the scene of the crime, meaning that you don’t know them for sure either. Which means that all this lovely dialogue, as much as it may or may not expose problems in our society and how we think and behave regarding race, doesn’t accomplish the task of bringing about justice in this situation.
That’s not to say that we can’t find justice. It just means that we need to consider more fundamental questions, ones brought about by information that is undisputed, the most basic information to the case:
A man shot and killed an unarmed teenager. He was not arrested at the scene.
Note the lack of background in this information, the lack of criminal history, the lack of names, the lack of race. It contains only the most basic details. It inspires some very basic questions that, in my opinion, have not been adequately asked, much less adequately answered:
1. Why is shooting and killing someone who doesn’t have a weapon not sufficient probable cause that a crime was committed?
2. In what circumstances do the police department and state think that it is acceptable to shoot and kill an unarmed man?
3. Are laws that protect someone who shoots and kills an unarmed man to the extent that they are not arrested pending at least manslaughter charges (because for all we know, the gun went off by accident) desirable in our society?
Once we put effort into answering these basic, fundamental questions about basic, undisputed facts of the case, then I might be willing to consider speculative questions about the impact of racism, background of victim and shooter, and the like. Maybe. Until then, we’re trying to describe a forest without knowing what a tree is.
Somehow, I have doubts that we’ll get beyond that point.