(This is a reprint of an essay I did for Psychology Today, originally published July 20, 2013. I was writing In response to Trayvon Martin’s murder by George Zimmerman. The argument Is relevant to Donald Trump’s full-page newspaper ad calling for the execution of five Black teenagers later exonerated; and Kyle Rittenhouse, who killed two protesters against police violence in Kenosha, Wisc. on Aug. 25, 2020,)
Were it not for the bullet in his heart, Trayvon Martin’s encounter with George Zimmerman would be a comedy of errors. As a stranger in street clothes packing a concealed weapon, Zimmerman had no business shadowing and challenging Martin—in fact a police dispatcher had just warned him to cool it. Zimmerman was literally looking for trouble, yet he misjudged the danger because Florida had put a pistol and the sinister “Stand-your-ground” law into his hands. Ironically, teen culture had put old-fashioned fists in Martin’s hands.
The problem is that both men were drawing on dangerous cultural fantasies. Emulating the heroic vigilante in American movies and lore, Zimmerman tried to live out a fatally unrealistic story. Instead of saving “his” neighborhood, he became a clownish bigshot getting a bloody nose and killing one of the neighbors he was supposed to be protecting—and an unarmed boy to boot. Whether he struck first or not, Martin too was acting out a cultural fantasy: the heroic black male fighting to survive racist mean streets. He had no idea he was suicidally confronting the sort of sinister concealed weapon that makes Florida an unsafe place to be.
Martin had as much reason to feel threatened as Zimmerman did, as he said in his phonecall to Rachel Jeantel. In legal terms, as Alafair Burke observed, if the court had pointed out that Martin was punching Zimmerman in self-defense, then the verdict could have been different. In fact it would reveal the dangerous absurdity of the neighborhood vigilante scenario.
The incident escalated to hair-trigger fatality because each man was drawing on a cultural story that left out curiosity, inquiry, and negotiation. The fantasies excluded the imaginative sympathy–the “Hello, how are you?”—that is the basis of civility. In part they reflect the reliance on violence to stimulate thrills and chills and profits in entertainment. As media researcher George Gerbner found, one consequence is that heavy TV viewing will lead you to overestimate how dangerous your own neighborhood is.
The moralistic law-enforcement student who wanted to be a judge like his father seems to have imagined that law means enforcement, not talking through problems with strangers. The culture of young black males similarly prepares them to mistrust and fear a shadowy figure like Zimmerman, whether he was a cop or a potential mugger.
So this is a story about a failure of civility—and the law—to control paranoia, hair-trigger reflexes, and fantasies of heroic force. What motivates the story and made it tragic is the combination of moral aggression and the allure of abandon.
Moral aggression ranges from petty hypocrisy and bullying to the systematic use of righteousness as a weapon to intimidate and kill. History quakes with murderous eruptions such as the Christian crusades, witchhunts, lynching, and all wars. But righteous malice can also be sly, as when politicians sanctimoniously punish the poor by cutting food stamps.
Moral aggression is crucially entangled with self-esteem. In a sense it’s at the core of personality, as Karen Horney recognizes when she sees culture encoding demands or “shoulds” that from infancy start molding—and often warping—personalities. After all, mum and dad (culture) stuff you with a sense of “what is right” long before you’re know who are or can sort out your values. And people use “shoulds” against each other, which is one reason we fear dictators. When you put down someone who’s “wrong,” you feel “better,” pumping up your self-esteem. If you use moral aggression to exterminate “bad” others, as in Auschwitz or the Old Testament, you can even feel godlike.
The fantasy is most atrocious when it runs amok, as in witchhunts or ethnic cleansing. If you’re seething, the urge to throw off all inhibitions leads to rampage killing or “going postal.” But in American culture these days abandon is pervasive in movies, news, sports, and military ambitions. Shedding inhibitions is a style. Hence the copycat quality in many rampage killings. Our choices are always conditioned by culture. If you fly into a rage, you still have to choose how to act it out. Consciously or not, you need models. If everyone is fascinated by radical gun violence and you join the mayhem, your bigshot infamy commands the world’s attention.
But here’s the hook. Abandon is cruelly ambiguous. If losing control unleashes rage, it’s deplorable. Yet abandon can be seductive too. All sorts of cultural voices, from sports and warfare to advertising promise that if you could just throw off your inhibitions, you could tap some amazing resources in yourself: become a daring millionaire, an Olympic athlete, or an invincible gangster. In slang we say “Go for it!” Superman models this fantasy when he throws off his dorky Clark Kent duds and shows his superhero cape and jockstrap. This is the romance of abandon. Pro wrestling fakes it. Rampage killers live it.
The second ambiguity is that abandon has no obvious limit. How much is enough? Abandon is terrifyingly lethal when the twitch of a finger can trigger maximum violence and kill a child or the city of Hiroshima. George Zimmerman’s pistol supported fantasies of abandon. With a gun he had no reason to be cautious about the hoodied stranger he spotted. He didn’t realize that Trayvon Martin was also into abandon until his fist smashed Zimmerman’s nose.
A flirtation with berserk abandon is one marker of “bad boy” fantasies in pop culture, as the many extravagant and dead rappers illustrate. Trayvon Martin flirted with the bad boy role, suspended from school several times, and once challenged by cops over some ladies’ jewelry found in his backpack. In one cellphone snapshot he posed with a potted marijuana plant, and in another gave the camera the finger with both hands. He had no police record, and these details are harmless, yet they suggest the ambiguities of outlaw self-reliance and streetwise toughness modeled in male adolescent culture—and the corresponding readiness of officialdom to profile minority males.
Ironically, Zimmerman was more of a “bad boy” than Martin. In 2005, he was in trouble for assaulting a cop, and his ex-fiancee took out a restraining order against him. In his new moral watchdog identity, in a recording of a call to police, he growls about “fucking punks” and “these assholes, they always get away.” This is not the wise voice of the law. You might conclude that Zimmerman uses moral aggression to keep himself better under control.
Let’s not forget the larger cultural picture. Zimmerman echoes the nation’s ambition to be a self-appointed “global policeman.” In American mythology. the neighborhood watch vigilante is akin to “the minute man.” Today, the watch is also an expression of the national security state that spies on its citizens as possible terrorists and mounts a manhunt against any whistle-blowing Snowdens who refuse to cooperate.
Overreaction to threat has official support in the “Bush doctrine” that at any sign of threat, the US is justified in “shooting first and asking questions afterward.” The Bush/Cheney mentality recalls the Cold War and Mutually Assured Destruction, the policy of launching a counterstrike the second you spot a missile inbound. The invasion of Iraq cynically employed this mentality, striking with “shock and awe” to counter an imminent attack: a sickening lie that strirred up insurgent anarchy and killed over 100 thousand civilians before the global policeman was forced to withdraw.. Li
Like the “Bush doctrine,” Florida’s “Stand-your-ground” law assumes that any threat to your security warrants total violence. You can see this bizarre idea sanitized in the use of unaccountable drones to assassinate suspects today. No trial, no evidence, no appeal. Given human bungling, drones are as dangerous as Zimmerman’s gun, without which this would be a story about a bloody nose.
Among those miscalculations is the death of innocents. Only in recent years have we had to face incontrovertible DNA evidence of wrongful imprisonment and judicial murder. But faced with DNA evidence, some prosecutors have repeatedly refused to reopen such cases, presumably because to avoid feeling crushed by guilt. After all, what could be more abominable than the suffering of innocent people condemned to terror and death? Moral aggression put Todd Cameron Willingham to death in Texas despite scientific testimony ignored on appeal. Governor Perry (later head of the energy department in the Trump administration), openly sabotaged the resulting investigation.
Conventional wisdom often behaves as if morality and abandon are self-evidently “natural.” In fact they can used like any other cultural tool or weapon. Hours after the politically skewed Supreme Court voted to gut the voting rights act Governor Perry’s Texas leapt to pass a discriminatory voter ID law disguised as a means of foiling fraud—for which no evidence exists.
Texas police recently jailed18 year old Justin Carter on $500,000 bail because a Canadian woman vigilante tipped them that in a bantering Facebook discussion two months after the Newtown massacre, Carter had made a sarcastic joke about murdering schoolkids, parenthetically signaling (lol) and (j/k) = just kidding. The Canadian snoop discovered that Justin had apparently lived near an elementary school as a kid (!) The First Amendment is supposed to protect us from witch hunters. Did racism exacerbate the ignorance and callousness of the police and judges?
In Justin Carter’s case, prosecutor Jennifer Tharp seems to be using moral aggression to look tough to nervous voters. In a culture that is scaring itself silly and looking for easy scapegoats, the temptation to cheap heroism is addictive. Yes, there are vicious criminals around us, on Wall Street and in uniforms as well as in dark alleys. But the Zimmerman fiasco, and the vigilante culture that contributed to that fiasco, aren’t punishing treacherous wealth and crooked power. Rather, they use bogus morality to pick on defenseless nobodies. Like all cultures in all eras, the US is greedy for heroes, and we manufacture them the way Guangdong province turns out shoes. In a dizzyingly ironic way Trayvon Martin has lost his life opening a window on the hallucinations of heroism in the new century.
Again, keep in mind that abandon and moral aggression go together. And so Florida’s berserk “stand-your-ground” law goes hand in hand with a harsh minimum sentencing law. George Zimmerman the killer is innocent, whereas Marissa Alexander, a black woman who fired a harmless warning shot through the ceiling to hold off an abusive husband, goes to prison for twenty years. To cut off the doctrine of self-defense from its cultural context is asking for trouble—not to mention, unjust. If two armed Floridians felt threatened, stood their ground, and shot each other to death, would the solution be to start firing whenever you first spot a stranger? Would lawmakers support that paranoia?
Disney World is not the only magic kingdom in Florida that thrives on illusions.
Resources mentioned in this essay:
Ernest Becker, Escape from Evil
Alafair Burke, “What you may not know about the Zimmerman Verdict: the Evolution of a Jury Instruction,” Huffington Post, July 15, 2013. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/users/becomeFan.php?of=hp_blogger_Alafair Burkehttp://www.huffingtonpost.com/author/index.php?author=alafair-burkehttp://www.huffingtonpost.com/users/login/
Karen Horney, Neurosis and Human Growth
Kirby Farrell, Berserk Style in American Culture
Kirby Farrell, The Psychology of Abandon
David Grann, “Trial by Fire: Did Texas Execute an Innocent Man?” New Yorker, Sept. 7, 2009. <<http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2009/09/07/090907fa_fact_grann
Michael J. Moore, “The Legacy” (documentary film about California’s Three Strikes law)
William Boardman, “Criminalizing Free Speech”