In the nineties, Sebastian Junger traced the drama and the devastation of three massive storm fronts colliding to form a storm of epic proportions. And, as is the way of language, his riveting account planted the phrase a perfect storm into the vernacular.
The murder of Trayvon Martin on February 26 in Sanford, Florida is first and foremost a devastating loss to his family, friends and community. But, in the widening aftermath of this event I have come to see a cultural storm powered by vast weather fronts, sometimes seen, often undetected, that move across our landscape. As the forces are as often discouraging as encouraging, an imperfect storm is the phrase that keeps coming to mind.
Racism occupies the center, of course. The pernicious, life threatening racism that remains a subtext of our common life. Then, there is the culture of personal guns and vigilante justice ever in the background of our civic life. Plus, a seeming caricature of inept and unresponsive local law enforcement has left Trayvon Martin’s killer still walking around, still carrying a gun. Also, largely unseen forces of ultraconservative corporations and political organizations are at work here: in a March 26, 2012 New York Times article Paul Krugman draws a connection to the “the American Legislative Exchange Council, a corporate-backed organization that has managed to keep a low profile even as it exerts vast influence. Despite claims that it’s nonpartisan, it’s very much a movement-conservative organization, funded by the usual suspects: the Kochs, Exxon Mobil, and so on… it doesn’t just influence laws, it literally writes them, supplying fully drafted bills to state legislators.” Florida’s now infamous ‘Stand Your Ground’ law, which has so far allowed Trayon Martin’s killer to remain free, contains the exact language of bills that ALEC is pushing in other legislatures.
But that’s not all. As the tragedy in Sanford has emerged in our national consciousness, all of the strengths, the excesses, the optimism and the mendacity of our media saturated and politically polarized moment have been lifted into view. The worst: that coterie of commentators and politicians whose defense of a fearful world view fuels an attack on the character of a kid who went to the corner store for a soda and some candy. The best: the strength and power of American’s inherent sense of decency and fairness has been engaged.
It is that fairness that I believe in. It holds a power that anyone who thinks of themselves as a humanist must affirm. However discouraging a present moment may seem, however senseless and frightening an event, such as the death of Trayvon Martin, however unjust a present practice, it is important to keep an historical perspective. It is that innate sense of fairness and decency that has shaped our present moment, and this moment, whatever stupid laws are in place, is more just, more fair and holds more opportunity for more people than any other moment in our history. And it American’s sense of decency and fairness that has made this so. It is that sense of fairness that gives me hope.
What I hope for now is that George Zimmerman, who confesses to killing Trayvon Martin, will be charged and tried, and will have a day in court to defend himself. And, I hope that the so called ‘Stand Your Ground’ laws will be challenged and overturned. And, I hope that from this grief we will take another step on the road to a freer and safer society. It is an imperfect storm, but along with the tragedy and fear, we have been witness to our fundamental decency, and pointed back towards hope and possibility.