Like the rest of us, I have been following the terrible killing of Trayvon Martin last month by George Zimmerman. Let me state right here, right now, that I do not support either Mr. Zimmerman nor Trayvon. But this just has to be said.
Having been a former history teacher, I have taught more than my share of American History, Civics, and Government courses in my time. And I wondered then, and I still wonder now if anyone understands who we are and what we stand for as a nation. We fought a revolution against the British to win the right to form our own country and create our own unique form of government-- a democracy. The founding fathers tasked us with a government for the people and by the people. Through a document called the Constitution, we set limits on our government and what it could do. Then, not being comfortable with that, we added the first ten amendments to this blueprint for government, which protected our personal rights. The ten amendments are called the Bill of Rights.
The constitution is an amazing document but what is most amazing is that we live under a government in which we are innocent until proven guilty. Why is that special? Because in many world governments it is the exact opposite. One is guilty until proved innocent—something rather hard to do. So if you are charged with a crime, you are basically done for. Think I’m wrong? Then check out dictatorships, military juntas, and most religious-based governments throughout the world.
I am pained over Trayvon’s death. But I am also pained that George Zimmerman has been tried and convicted in the court of public opinion, much as Bruno Richard Hauptman was convicted by the same kangaroo court in the 1930’s for allegedly kidnapping the baby of American hero Charles Lindbergh and his wife, Anne Morrow Lindbergh.
Did Hauptman do it? He went to his death swearing it was not him. Little hard evidence was provided that connected him to the kidnapping but he was found guilty and sentenced to death. The newspapers and newsreels of the time blared the grisly details of the kidnapping and never once was Hauptman referred to as the “alleged” kidnapper. Don’t believe me? Do some homework. Check the old newsreels and newspapers. Watch the old Pathe newsreels as they worked themselves into a feeding frenzy over Hauptman.
I am equally troubled that Zimmerman is an equally marked man. Did he shoot Trayvon? Looks that way. Was he eventually charged with a crime? Yes. But he has received death threats across the American spectrum. He was in hiding before he was charged and he is hiding now that he is free on bond—another basic American right.
Why is he hiding? Because Zimmerman is not African-American and Trayvon is? Has the race card been thrown again? Or is it that most people have already concluded that Zimmerman is guilty, color be damned. The media, which is so important to a democracy is not doing their job. I have yet to either read a description of, or hear a soundbyte, that uses the word “alleged” before Zimmerman’s name. So do we assume he is guilty until proven innocent? Do we throw away the concept of “innocent until proven guilty” on a case by case basis, or whenever it suits our sense of outrage? Or has social networking and its lack of moral ownership muddied the waters?
I live in a state that had one of the most gruesome home invasions ever a few years ago. Two guys held a doctor, his wife, and two daughters hostage, beat the doctor with a baseball bat, killed his wife, and raped both daughters before setting the house ablaze while the young girls were still alive inside, yet somehow they received due process. They were both convicted of multiple murders and I am very happy about that.
No one can assume that either Zimmerman or Trayvon were choirboys. Perhaps a lot of this hysteria is because the case seems so open and shut. And again, anyone with two cents and a Twitter or blog account can add their opinions, just as I am doing now. I am sure the police know much more about each of them than we want to believe. I understand that no one can take away the loss of a young life and the death of a child—one of our worst collective nightmares.
Was Zimmerman overzealous as he followed Travyon inside a gated community that fateful night? No doubt. Even the police told him to back off. Did he? Who knows? The facts will come out at his trial. Clearly this went all wrong for both people very quickly. Should it have happened? No. But it did. And now Trayvon is dead and Zimmerman is in hiding.
Can Zimmerman get a fair trial? Due process, to which he is entitled? And if he is found guilty, what will be the result? And if he is somehow acquitted, will some vigilante who has already tried and convicted him in the court of his own head carry out his own personal death sentence?
There are no winners here. There cannot be. One life has been ended and perhaps another will soon follow. But just once, I would like to read or hear a report that uses the term “alleged” when referring to Zimmerman. And I would like to see the media do their job. Our forefathers were well aware that the strength of a democracy is an “informed public.” It has worked since 1783. Why stop now?