Almost from the beginning, there were two aspects of the George Zimmerman as racist assassin story that made little sense. First, who calls the police, then murders a total stranger in cold blood knowing that they’re minutes away? Panic seemed likelier than malice. Second, how does a 28 year old man with a desk job catch a fleeing 17 year-old high school athlete anyway?
I say almost, because like most Americans, I responded to the Trayvon Martin tragedy as President Obama did—in sorrow, and with pity for the immense dignity of the young man’s parents. They and their son deserve justice. Not vengeance, justice.
I also believed, as I’ve written, that “untrained individuals like Zimmerman have no business packing heat, nor confronting strangers they deem suspicious. Trouble didn’t come to George Zimmerman; he went looking for it. At minimum, he acted like a damn fool.”
However, I was also leery of journalists and TV personalities like Al Sharpton and his MSNBC colleagues setting up as prosecutor, judge and jury. Even if you didn’t know about Sharpton’s previous misadventures—he became famous due to his outrageous conduct during the 1987 Tawana Brawley rape hoax—the network’s permitting him to report about a public event in which he’d enrolled as an active participant violated every known rule of journalistic ethics.
But truly, I had no idea. What began as a local tragedy has been supersized into a ratings-driven national TV melodrama, a racially- and politically-charged infotainment pitting good against evil. A festival of bad reporting, speculation and mind-reading from the outset, the Zimmerman-Martin affair has turned into a classic example of what University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt calls a “consensual hallucination.”
That is, people have so much emotion invested in the story, that regardless of how much the facts change, their conclusions rarely do. With group identity at stake, skepticism’s in short supply. It’s become like a national Rorschach Test. Comment lines to newspaper stories and blog posts regarding the case are a sight to see. Responding to a New York Times photo of Zimmerman on the witness stand, readers speculated that he’d artificially darkened his skin to curry favor with African-American jurors.
More’s the pity, because apart from its most basic elements, i.e. that George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin during a struggle after phoning Sanford, FL police to report a suspicious character, very little about the tragedy as initially reported has survived closer scrutiny. Remember when Zimmerman was depicted as a 250 lb brute assaulting a child half his size? The real George Zimmerman turns out to be a smallish fellow some five or six inches shorter than the wiry young man he confronted.
Cable TV’s amateur prosecutors expressed outrage that Sanford police failed to investigate. They alleged that Zimmerman had been allowed to leave the crime scene and go home. Supposedly, police hadn’t bothered to take photos documenting Zimmerman’s self-defense claim, nor collected his gun or clothing as evidence. Sharpton and the rest railed about poor Trayvon’s body lying four days in the morgue before his frantic parents were notified.
If true, these would have been evidence of callous racism and worse. However, they were all categorically false. The cops took Zimmerman downtown, grilled him for hours, collected the physical evidence, canvassed for witnesses and filed an affidavit recommending he be charged with manslaughter. Sanford officers delivered the terrible news to Trayvon’s father face to face almost as soon as the family phoned police seeking his whereabouts.
Needless to say, no corrections were forthcoming. Instead fresh outrage was manufactured over murky video footage of Zimmerman being led into police headquarters in handcuffs, seemingly unmarked after being treated by EMS technicians. For MSNBC viewers, the footage became as familiar as the Zapruder film of JFK’s assassination. Not only the Rev. Sharpton, but Big Ed, Lawrence O’Donnell and their guests repeatedly portrayed it as the linchpin of their case. Zimmerman had clearly lied about Trayvon assaulting him. Therefore there was no self-defense. Case closed.
So when ABC News published a contemporaneous photo of Zimmerman with blood streaming from two wounds on the back of his head on the day of his bail hearing, a naïve observer might have imagined that an attitude adjustment might be in order. No chance. Sharpton ignored the photos altogether; the rest gave them short shrift.
So maybe Zimmerman’s a racist murderer, maybe his suspicions of Trayvon were correct, or possibly something in between.
Based on what I know, I can’t say.
Then there was this disconcerting admission from the AP’s account of the hearing: “Investigator Dale Gilbreath testified that he does not know whether Martin or Zimmerman threw the first punch and that there is no evidence to disprove Zimmerman’s contention he was walking back to his vehicle when confronted by Martin.”
And if he doesn’t know, dear reader, neither do you.