Andy Stone: A Stone’s Throw
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colordado
People across the country are reacting with outrage to the Florida killing of a teenager, armed with a bag of Skittles, by a 28-year-old man, armed with a 9-millimeter pistol.
Most of the outcry has focused on the tragic specifics: the man and the boy, the events leading up to the killing, the police response. And, inevitably, the racial politics of the American South.
That focus is certainly reasonable. But I find myself thinking about the wider circles of events, politics and philosophies that brought us eventually to specifics of this kind.
The man who did the shooting was, we are told, “a neighborhood watch captain.”
Let’s start there.
The neighborhood watch is an idea based in fear. It arose in the 1970s and ’80s when crime was rampant and law enforcement was losing ground. In that era, the neighborhood watch well might have been a reasonable response.
That program lost some momentum when the national crime wave began to ebb. Violent crime peaked in the 1980s, and the crime rate has been dropping sharply since the mid-1990s. But the neighborhood watch movement was revitalized in 2002 in an effort by the National Sheriffs’ Association to “[empower] citizens to become active in homeland security efforts” – in other words, protecting our neighborhoods against terrorism.
So we have once-legitimate fear of crime turned into fear of terrorists as part of a national program of widespread unfocused fear.
And from this we get a Florida vigilante, dedicated to patrolling the streets of the gated neighborhood where this killing occurred.
The very concept of a gated neighborhood is yet another symptom of the same paranoia. If you’re going to cry, “The barbarians are at the gates!” you’d better have some gates. And once you get those gates, everyone on the other side is, by definition, a barbarian.
Meanwhile, as people are urged to turn out and patrol their own neighborhoods to prevent crime, we are in a national frenzy of cutting the government programs that actually fight crime.
The combination of the current recession and the “Don’t tax me!” fad for slashing local and state government budgets has led to sharp reductions in local police forces and the elimination of streetlights (to save on electricity – really).
So, fearful and undefended, in the dark, we form our posses.
The next step in this process is, of course, arming people. You don’t send a posse out armed with fly-swatters. And we’re well beyond the peasants-with-pitchforks stage.
Longstanding all-out efforts by the National Rifle Association, backed by a recent Supreme Court decision reinterpreting the Second Amendment, have led to the virtual death of gun control laws throughout the country.
Perhaps we need to modify the Pledge of Allegiance – from “one nation, under God,” to “one nation, well-armed.”
We somehow have become convinced that the safest society is one in which everyone is carrying a loaded weapon – preferably concealed.
This is yet another symptom of fear.
It is only a fearful person who feels the need to carry a gun at all times.
Apparently, this nation – founded in revolution, sustained by the frontier spirit – has become a coven of cowards. We have gone from “Land of the free, Home of the Brave” to “Land of the Home, Free of the Brave.”
And, in another gleeful step in that transformation, we now have the “Stand Your Ground” laws.
These laws have been promoted nationwide by an alliance of the NRA and the American Legislative Exchange Council, a national conservative shadow government that drafts laws for state legislators to enact.
Stand Your Ground laws eliminate the age-old common-sense legal principle that says: When confronted by deadly force, retreat.
That old rule never applied if someone broke into your home. You always have been entitled to defend your “castle” against violent intruders. But the new rules say your “castle” is pretty much wherever you happen to be standing – on the sidewalk, in the schoolyard, in church, at the 7-Eleven.
The laws mostly drop “deadly force” as a necessary provocation – it’s reserved for your allowable response. So if you feel threatened, it’s “ready, aim, fire!” (And maybe don’t worry so much about that “ready, aim” nonsense. Just fire!)
In effect, it becomes a shoot-first law, because if there are only two of you involved and the other guy is dead, there’s no one to dispute your claim that you felt threatened. (So maybe the “aim” part of the routine really is important. You don’t wanted a wounded victim hanging around to tell his side of the story.)
Florida enacted its Stand Your Ground law in 2005, and, according to the Tampa Bay Times, cases of “justifiable homicide” have tripled since then. People catch on quickly.
Twenty-five states have enacted Stand Your Ground laws, and several more have versions of those laws pending. Hey, it’s working so well for Florida.
So, putting it all together, we have a national miasma of fear, in communities with dark streets and fewer police. We add in self-appointed vigilantes who are empowered – perhaps even encouraged – to go on patrol heavily armed. And then we dispense with any sort of legal obligation to show respect for human life.
Set aside the tragic details of that one terrible event in Florida. What we have is a national campaign (sorry, but I have to say this: a conservative campaign) to spread fear, reduce law enforcement, arm everyone and encourage people to hit the streets with guns blazing.
Maybe we need to modify the Pledge of Allegiance one more time.
How about this: “Duck!”
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