Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Not A Tragedy

A blurb at the top of the front page of Think Progress linking to a post on the Trayvon Martin murder in Sanford, FL calls it a "tragedy". I was glad to see that word nowhere present either in the headline or body of the piece itself. What happened that February day can be described as a cold-blooded killing, a hate crime, yet another contemporary lynching of a young black man for the singular perceived crime of walking where a white person felt he had no business walking. That George Zimmerman used a gun instead of a rope, and acted on his own instead of with a group of similarly affronted fellow whites makes little difference.

This was not, however, a tragedy.

A tragedy, at least as conventionally understood, is a series of events that are simultaneously unavoidable and leave observers feeling nothing but sorrow and compassion for all those involved. Hamlet is a tragedy because the interlocking plots and schemes of the antagonists lead, in the end, to the deaths of many people whose deaths need not have happened, from Hamlet and his mother and stepfather to Rosencranz and Guildenstern to Ophelia and Laertes and their father, Polonius.

Oedipus is a tragedy because, trapped by irresistible fate in to fulfilling the promised murder of his father and marriage to his mother, every act Oedipus takes to prevent these eventualities only moves closer the revelation that he has already fulfilled them.

There is no reason at all to assume a young man, walking down a suburban street, should face a threat to his life. That we would live in a society where a young man can be shot down for no other reason than being the wrong skin color in the wrong place at the wrong time is not the result of blind chance; nor is it the inevitable result of choices beyond our control. On the contrary, that we continue to live in a world where a young black man lives with the ever-present threat of death for no other reason than that he is black is our fault.

All of us.

George Zimmerman pulled the trigger. We have not done enough - not nearly enough, never enough - to create conditions where George Zimmerman wouldn't think it necessary to carry a gun and shoot a young man for doing little more than walk down the street. We have not done enough - not nearly enough, never enough - to demystify blackness as a threat. Trayvon was a young man whose only remarkable feature was his skin color; for that reason alone he posed what far too many people insist is a very real threat. Was George Zimmerman truly afraid? Was he angry? Was he little more than a cold-hearted bigot who, seeing a young African-American male walk down the street of his gated community, didn't see a person but a label? These questions are, I think, only partially answerable. However far we come to an answer, little doubt remains that Trayvon Martin died on February 26 because of the willful decision on George Zimmerman's part to kill him. That the many swirling questions regarding race and power remain open have little to do with the reality that Tayvon's death is not, and cannot be, a tragedy.

Virtual Tin Cup

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