July 28, 2013

MEGAN MCARDLE: We Don’t Need Tougher Standards For Self-Defense.

Right now, it feels wrong to many people because a boy who was walking home with Skittles and iced tea has ended up dead. But as lawyers say, “hard cases make bad law.” The law will always have some sad cases that can’t be prosecuted, or some cases where someone doing something understandable gets jail time for breaking the law. Laws written in response to public outcry about those hard cases are usually bad laws. They are the equivalent of deciding to give everyone an ANA test because of the tragic death of someone with undiagnosed lupus.

In both cases, we’re focusing on the emotional impact of the false negative that is right before us, and not all the other cases where false positives could be disastrous. Imagine that someone you have had words with — your editor, perhaps — attacks you, and there are no witnesses to the attack. Fearing for your life, you stab him, and he dies. Should the law require you to prove that you acted in self-defense, beyond a reasonable doubt? How could you?

Imagine now that it is a black teenager attacked by a racist 23-year-old looking for a fight, or a woman whose abusive boyfriend finally threatened to kill her. Do you want those people to have to prove that it was self-defense beyond a reasonable doubt? Should the prosecution be able to send them to prison for decades because it’s possible that they were the aggressor — not even likely, just possible? Should they have to wait until they have suffered life-threatening damage in order to justify protecting themselves?

That seems insane to me.

Which is why you’ll never get a gig at MSNBC. But, to be fair, many of these people would be happy with special rules for black youths, or battered women, or whatever, so that they get the result they want. And if the categories don’t fit, well — you can always re-arrange them ad hoc, as the media did when they turned part-black, part-hispanic George Zimmerman into the reincarnation of Bull Connor.

Related: Cathy Young: Zimmerman Backlash Continues Thanks To False Media Narrative.

This narrative has transformed Zimmerman, a man of racially mixed heritage that included white, Hispanic and black roots (a grandmother who helped raise him had an Afro-Peruvian father), into an honorary white male steeped in white privilege. It has cast him as a virulent racist even though he once had a black business partner, mentored African-American kids, lived in a neighborhood about 20 percent black, and participated in complaints about a white police lieutenant’s son getting away with beating a homeless black man.

This narrative has perpetuated the lie that Zimmerman’s history of calls to the police indicates obsessive racial paranoia. Thus, discussing the verdict on the PBS NewsHour, University of Connecticut professor and New Yorker contributor Jelani Cobb asserted that “Zimmerman had called the police 46 times in previous six years, only for African-Americans, only for African-American men.” Actually, prior to the call about Martin, only four of Zimmerman’s calls had to do with African-American men or teenage boys (and two of them were about individuals who Zimmerman thought matched the specific description of burglary suspects). Five involved complaints about whites, and one about two Hispanics and a white male; others were about such issues as a fire alarm going off, a reckless driver of unknown race, or an aggressive dog.

In this narrative, even Zimmerman’s concern for a black child—a 2011 call to report a young African-American boy walking unsupervised on a busy street, on which the police record notes, “compl[ainant] concerned for well-being”—has been twisted into crazed racism. Writing on the website of The New Republic, Stanford University law professor Richard Thompson Ford describes Zimmerman as “an edgy basket case” who called 911 about “the suspicious activities of a seven year old black boy.” This slander turns up in other left-of-center sources, such as ThinkProgress.org.

It has to be 1963 forever. Otherwise they’d have to ask some tough questions — of themselves. Read the whole thing.

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