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Stand our ground

by Rob Eshman

July 17, 2013 | 11:22 am

Men hold a sign during a demonstration supporting Trayvon Martin in Los Angeles, Calif., on July 16. Photo by Jonathan Alcorn/Reuters

Men hold a sign during a demonstration supporting Trayvon Martin in Los Angeles, Calif., on July 16. Photo by Jonathan Alcorn/Reuters

I’m outraged at the Trayvon Martin case, but not because a jury found George Zimmerman, the man who killed Martin, not guilty.

When you read through the state’s case and the witness testimony, when you stop to understand the trial the way the jurors did, when you go over the actual points of law that had to be decided, then it’s easy to understand why Zimmerman was found not guilty. The state failed to make its case.

What outrages me still is this: A boy who didn’t have to die is dead.

On Feb. 26, 2012, Martin, 17, was walking back to his father’s girlfriend’s home in a Sanford, Fla., gated community when he drew the suspicions of Zimmerman, a 29-year-old neighborhood watch captain. Zimmerman armed himself with a pistol and followed Martin. The two got into a confrontation. It ended when Zimmerman shot Martin dead.

We don’t know how Martin behaved that night. We don’t know if Zimmerman acted like the Terminator or Andy Griffith. All we know for sure is this: Zimmerman took a gun and went to confront Martin, and Martin is dead.

[Related: David Suissa's reaction to the Zimmerman verdict]

At the time Zimmerman started to follow him, Martin was carrying a bottle of iced tea and a bag of Skittles. He had endangered no one. He had threatened no one.

Zimmerman first called 911 and reported “a suspicious person.” The operator told Zimmerman not to leave his vehicle or approach Martin. Zimmerman ignored the instructions and left his SUV. 

No matter how many times I hear about the trial, my mind goes back to that moment — that’s where my outrage begins.

Why did Zimmerman have to take matters into his own hands? Why wasn’t a phone call to the police enough? Why go looking for trouble?

If Zimmerman had made his call and waited for the police, Martin would be alive today. 

The reason Zimmerman didn’t wait is because of Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” statute. Under that law, a person can justifiably use force in self-defense, even outside of one’s home or car, when there is a reasonable belief of an unlawful threat, and without the obligation to first retreat. 

Until this case exploded, I had no idea there could be such an idiotic interpretation of what would otherwise be a common-sense law. People attacked in their home should be able to stand their ground. But claiming every piece of Florida sidewalk as “your ground” defies logic. It’s an outrage. 

Of course we must have the right to defend ourselves against imminent threat. “One who comes to slay you,” the Talmud says, “rise up and slay him.” Yet the Jewish law of din rodef, literally, the case of the pursuer, obligates us to defend ourselves and others from a pursuer come to do us harm. Ours is not the religion of “turn the other cheek.” Ours is the religion of Yael, who didn’t wait for Sisera to lead an army against the Israelites. The night before battle, she lulled Sisera to sleep, then drove a spike through his head. Jewish law — and common-sense law — gives us the right to preempt our destruction. 

But Martin had as much right to stand on that ground as Zimmerman. If Zimmerman had to defend himself, it was because he chased a boy he had no business pursuing. It’s likely Martin was the one who felt he was standing his ground. But we’ll never know, because he wasn’t the one with the gun.

Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law mocks the common sense of self-defense. It gives individuals the right to preempt their own imagined destruction. Killing someone who comes to kill you is ethical. Chasing after someone who looks like you imagine someone who might want to kill you looks — that’s immoral. When you get a gun and go looking for trouble, chances are you’ll find it. 

What outrages me about the Zimmerman verdict is how it may only reaffirm this behavior.

“What the verdict says, to the astonishment of tens of millions of us, is that you can go looking for trouble in Florida, with a gun and a great deal of racial bias, and you can find that trouble, and you can act upon that trouble in a way that leaves a young man dead, and none of it guarantees that you will be convicted of a crime,” Andrew Cohen wrote in The Atlantic.

The facts bear this out, as if common sense doesn’t. Since Florida passed the “Stand Your Ground” law in 2005, deaths due to self-defense have jumped 200 percent.

Maybe it should come as no surprise that the National Rifle Association, which has pushed concealed carry laws, obstructed efforts at common-sense background checks and never met a weapon it wanted to ban, played a key role in supporting Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law. What fun are concealed weapons if you can’t shoot people with them?

There are 23 states with “Stand Your Ground” laws like Florida’s. In order that there never be a 24th, the rest of us must stand our ground.


Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Twitter @foodaism.

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