Sanford police are pushing back in the face of public criticism, saying that witnesses have corroborated George Zimmerman’s account of his fatal encounter with Trayvon Martin. Given how many salient facts about the case seem to have been missed in the initial investigation—Zimmerman’s history of arrests for violence, the failure to test the admitted shooter for drugs or alcohol at the scene, the account given by Martin’s girlfriend of their cell conversation during the minutes leading up to the confrontation—that’s no reason to back off calls for a more thorough independent investigation. But it does reinforce my worry that when facts are incomplete, we tend to gravitate toward (and even insist upon) the least ambiguous narrative template available, ideally featuring one completely reprehensible villain and one completely innocent victim.
The most obviously repellent version of this has come in the form of attempts to shoehorn Martin—you know, the unarmed dead teenager—into the crude stereotype of a young thug. Any admission that maybe young black men are routinely subject to unfair “profiling,” that maybe racism exists as something other than a charge to unfairly hurl at white conservatives, would be a victory for “the left”—so it cannot be allowed! Hence we’re treated to reports that Martin used a lot of vulgarity on Twitter or maybe smoked pot, as though these were capital crimes, or even slightly unusual activities for a 17-year-old.
Much more understandably, considering who was shot dead in this encounter, there seems to be a tacit supposition that if Zimmerman was a racial-profiling jerk who mistook himself for Batman, and if he approached Martin (against the advice of a 911 dispatcher) to question him about his “suspicious” presence in the neighborhood for no better reason than his age and race, then it must also be Zimmerman who turned the confrontation violent. And maybe it was. But it also seems entirely possible that Martin—whether from fear of assault or anger and frustration at being treated like a criminal just for Walking While Black—really did strike first, and a panicked Zimmerman (head injury perhaps clouding his already poor judgment) genuinely thought he was defending himself when he fired.
That wouldn’t in any way mean that Martin “deserved” to get shot, or that Zimmerman wasn’t also seriously in the wrong, or that the use of lethal force was a justifiable form of self-defense against an unarmed assailant under the circumstances. It would just mean the situation was complicated, and that it’s possible for both parties to have been partly in the wrong even if one person was more culpable—or even a generally worse human being. But a whole lot of people seem impossibly confident that things must have played out one way or the other, as though it were a matter of moral principle rather than (possibly unknowable) fact.
A commenter on an earlier post suggested that one factor in people’s varied reactions here may be what psychologists call the Just World Hypothesis. Briefly: People want to believe the world is basically fair, and that good people don’t suffer for no reason, so they strive mightily to rationalize that suffering as somehow earned or justified. That (along with a generous helping of plain old racism) may work for the folks who are at such pains to lay all the blame on the slain Martin. But a slightly different story might account for the general impulse to insist that, wherever the blame falls, it falls wholly—all or nothing.
Probably there’s already some other name for the phenomenon I’m about to describe, but I’ll call it the Moral Clarity Hypothesis. This allows that the world is not always perfectly just, but still maintains a strict moral order by insisting on perfect injustice as the sole alternative. Life may not be fair, but at least it isn’t arbitrary. The moral ledger is always balanced: For every good person that suffers, some bad person is culpable in direct proportion to that suffering; for every unjustified harm, there is a corresponding wrong. The result is a kind of compensatory absolution—a way of sparing the unfairly injured the added insult of ascribing responsibility, however small a share. You see something like this, I think, across a number of domains: Either the poor deserve their lot because they’re feckless and lazy or it’s an injustice inflicted by malign plutocrats.
As a corollary, every story has exactly one moral: If the most important lesson to learn from the killing of Trayvon Martin is that racial stereotyping—by citizens and perhaps also police—remains a pervasive problem with catastrophic consequences for young black men, then anything that complicates that picture is a rationalization, a distraction, an attempt to make excuses and blame the victim. Or: If the picture actually is more complicated in any way, we can breathe easy knowing that racism was abolished in 1964, there’s no need to question a criminal justice system that incarcerates black men at rates that would make Stalin blush, and any indications to the contrary can be put down to a leftist plot to score political points.
Maybe it turns out that this case really is that simple: That Zimmerman launched an unprovoked assault on Martin, and bears complete, unqualified responsibility for all that ensued. Even at this late date, I hope a more thorough and independent investigation can provide everyone concerned with more certainty about what actually happened. But the facts of this particular case aren’t stakes in some allegorical battle. They won’t confirm or refute any overarching point about Race in America—only the details of one horrifying night in February in one Florida town. Which means we don’t have to insist that reality become a cartoon to validate our moral commitments.