In our version of justice in America, we seek far more than righting the wrong. We seek that the perpetrator serves their time, is thrown behind bars, pays for what they did.
In short, we like to see the perp suffer.
We seek revenge.
But why do we call for revenge when we know deep in our hearts that it’s wrong? That two wrongs don’t make a right? That eye for an eye makes the world go blind?
Recently, a friend on Facebook asked that George Zimmerman, the man who shot and killed 17 year old Trayvon Martin, be prosecuted. I commented, “What good would come from prosecuting him?” Another woman answered, “He should absolutely be punished for his actions… Not punishing him, if guilty, sends a clear message that this kid’s life is worth nothing.”
I think she hit the nail on the head.
To her—to many others as well—revenge has come to define justice. And if Zimmerman was to be left alone it would mean we don’t care about Trayvon. But here’s a newsflash for this kind of thinking: Trayvon’s life is a great loss regardless of what happens to Zimmerman. Zimmerman’s punishment does not validate Trayvon as a worthwhile human.
But we connect these two very strongly and doing so causes a lot of problems.
First we see the angry reactions and demands tainted with revenge, (some extraordinarily so like the Black Panthers’ bounty and Spike Lee’s tweet of what he thought was Zimmerman’s address, resulting in the wrong family—an elderly couple—being terrorized with threats and forcing them out of their home). Meanwhile, much of the media coverage, under similar influence, is skewed to favor demands of arrest and prosecution of Zimmerman.
What has all this done but to cause an ever-greater reaction from those with racist tendencies?—but also non-racists who go over the top to compensate for the skew. Either way, we see the character assassination of Trayvon, an ugly attempt to straighten things out. How terrible it is trying to make a murder victim look bad!
Then as a reaction to this, many angry over Trayvon’s death sweep under the rug any information that shines negatively on Trayvon and refer to it as smear—‘cause sometimes it is. But it’s also important information to acknowledge if we want a well-rounded view of this case.
Unfortunately, well-rounded has turned into polars—capped off with terrorizing elderly innocents and smearing a dead innocent.
It’s disturbingly political.
And taking it to this point is our connecting revenge to justice.
Cut that cord. It’s an insult to Trayvon to suggest his life was worthwhile if only we avenge his death.
Prosecution has also come to represent the only action that can appease the crowds who cry for equality in this nation. But by bringing to light the harm of racial stereotyping, this tragic case has done much to bring awareness to this issue already.
This is not to say that people shouldn’t have consequences for their actions. It is to say, though, that we ought to reconsider our ideas of justice. Beyond compulsory compensation for harms done, we ought not take action against the perpetrator unless the safety of people is at risk.
If Zimmerman is found to be irresponsible with his weapon, take away his gun, and demand an action that directs him toward righting his wrong. If he’s deemed irresponsible regardless of a firearm, then put him in jail. But prison should be a last resort as it harms those imprisoned, their families, and all of us as the weight of supporting our one million prisoners is extraordinary. Plus, plenty have served decades for being falsely accused.
By leaning on persecution as the appeasement to our need for justice, we favor imprisonment and punishment all too often and see the needless imprisonment of men and women at everyone’s cost. And it prevents those guilty the ability to try and right the wrongs they’ve caused.
All this gets ignored, though, when we confuse the notion of justice with revenge; when we believe that Zimmerman’s payback is in some way a remedy; when we mistakingly assume that Trayvon is somehow not worthwhile—or that racism isn’t a crucial issue—unless we punish Zimmerman.
Ridding all these extraneous factors, we just might see that imprisoning Zimmerman serves no productive function except to continue to warp our idea of justice.
See, this case can be about more than racism and racial divides. It can serve as a jumping off point for looking at justice in a whole new way, by identifying and removing the toxin that interferes with the unifying process—revenge.
It can help us redefine justice to be about healing and love and how to best move forward when tragedy occurs.
Now this would truly leave a legacy to honor the life of Trayvon Martin.