Shocked by the shooting of a black teenager in Florida and 17 villagers in Afghanistan, the nation busily tears into the psyches of the two shooters, debating what could possibly motivate such outrages.
In the one case, an American soldier, Staff Sergeant Robert “Bobby” Bales, in Afghanistan for his fourth combat tour after having suffered a traumatic brain injury on an earlier tour, creeps into two Afghan villages after a night of drinking, shooting his sleeping victims — nine of them children — and lighting some of them on fire.
In the second case, an armed, 28-year-old Neighborhood Watch captain, George Zimmerman, spots what he regards as a suspicious character — 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, carrying, as we all know by now, a bag of Skittles and a can of Arizona Ice Tea. Details of the ensuing confrontation between the 250-pound man and the 140-pound teenager are in dispute, but this much we know: Trayvon Martin is dead, as are those Afghan villagers.
Much current public debate centers on possible extenuating circumstances. Was Staff Sgt. Bales given an anti-malaria drug known to cause psychotic episodes, especially among soldiers with head injuries? Did the brain injury itself come back into play, or was he unhinged by the sight of a fellow soldier losing a leg in combat earlier that day? Did Trayvon Martin stand his ground and initiate a fistfight with the gun-totting stranger following him from the convenience store? Or did the wannabe cop start the fight that resulted in Trayvon’s death?
Ongoing investigations — which won’t bring any of the victims back to life — may answer some of those questions. But we know, too, that the lives of these two men — Zimmerman and Bales — are likely forfeit. It’s hard to imagine a circumstance where the Army will not mete out harsh, perhaps the harshest, punishment to Bales. And while Zimmerman may somehow walk free — indeed, he hasn’t even been arrested — do you really think his life going forward will know much joy?
And we also can surely guess that you, me, and our neighbors down the street are not likely to shoulder any part of the responsibility ourselves. No, we’ll focus our attention on these two bad seeds and others like them, these misfits perpetrating unthinkable crimes, these alien beings so unlike us. And then we’ll pass more punishing laws, hire more police officers, and stockpile our own weapons to keep us safe from these dangerous killers among us.
But, you and I, we do have a responsibility here. We’re the ones passing laws that make gun purchases easy and encouraging our fellow citizens to arm themselves against the “suspicious intruders” our fear-mongering politicians put before us. And we’re the ones who send our soldiers back into battle year after year after year, fighting wars some of us never believed in — you can see me puffing up my chest, can’t you? — and precious few of us support anymore.
You say you don’t support our imperialist wars, our evermore liberal gun laws, and the hatemongering that passes for public discourse? With these new murder victims mouldering in their graves, “saying” does not seem nearly enough, does it?
If you’re not out on the corner of Colorado and Eagle Rock Boulevard every weekend with our nearly 90-year-old friend, Flo Griffen, waving your “Out Now” sign — and I’m not there either, so I have no finger to point — or haranguing your congressman to stop these senseless wars and stop them now, then maybe you have to stand next to Sgt. Bales, too.
Sure, what Bales did was aberrant and it was horrific, but it was also the kind of thing that grows out of the ugliness of war. Civilians get killed, maybe not always murdered in their sleep in bunches, but they have gotten caught in the crossfire of every war since the first caveman picked up a stone in anger. Ask my Dad, who fought in World War II. Ask me, who fought in Vietnam. Ask any in-the-mud combat veteran.
On liberalized gun laws and encouraging vigilantism, presidential candidate Rick Santorum recently blubbered that the “Stand Your Ground” laws in vogue around the country weren’t intended to cover George Zimmerman’s actions. Fool. You pass laws encouraging people to arm themselves and not just sane, well-adjusted people who will take pains to train themselves in proper gun use will hear you. No, some of the listeners will be compensating for inadequacies, as it seems Zimmerman was doing, and some will be just plain nuts, as was Jared Lee Loughner, the schizophrenic who shot Congresswoman Gabby Giffords in the head, killing six and wounding 14.
On Trayvon’s murder, besides the gun issue, thousands and now tens of thousands are demonstrating in the streets not because one young black man was killed, tragic as that was. No, they’re protesting — and especially the black community is protesting — because Trayvon was just yet another black man who was targeted — “profiled” — because far too many of us believe that a black man, any black man, even a slightly built 17-year-old teenaged black man is dangerous, suspicious, a threat.
Ask my step-son, a young teacher who had a couple of degrees and owned real estate before he was 30, but can’t drive through parts of his own community without being pulled over for DWB (Driving While Black). Ask my brother-in-law who jogs five miles a day in his suburban community, knowing he may be accused of running away from the scene of some crime because it has happened so often. Ask any young Black man in America.
And that won’t stop until more of us are willing to embrace our neighbors, welcoming diversity into our workplaces, our churches, our homes. That won’t stop until we stop believing racial profiling and unequal treatment is just an issue for our Black and Latino communities. That won’t stop until we stop it, all of us.
Editor, LA Progressive