I’m not always in agreement with the writer Glenn Greenwald but he recently published an essay on Salon.com that broaches the subject how we look broadly and long for reasons that someone on “our side”—in this instance, SSgt Robert Bales—can do something indefensible while parroting official explanations like “they hate our freedom” or “they’re simply terrorists” for indefensible actions taken by the “other side” that I find spot on. There is something in the American mold, and I don’t think it’s only white Americans but something in the makeup of Americans, that must look for a rationale for atrocities committed by an American. I remember similar soul-searching done when Wayne Williams was found out and John Allen Muhammed and Jeffrey Weisse. As Greenwald puts it, “There is…a desperate need to believe that when an American engages in acts of violence…there must be some underlying mental or emotional cause that makes it sensible, something other than an act of pure hatred or Evil.”
Similarly, we have been inundated with a series of explanations and rationales for why George Zimmerman—who may self-identify as Hispanic—shot Trayvon Martin to death nearly a month ago. It is as if, if there is any explanation that can be found why a grown man in a car with a handgun should feel intimidated by a young man he has sought out and who is holding candy, iced tea, and a cell phone, we will find it. Our need for explanation beyond malevolence extends beyond official representatives of American policy, like soldiers, to people who consider themselves as such, like Zimmerman, who captained a neighborhood watch that consisted of him alone.
This is a charged political climate where one Republican presidential candidate has been openly accused of espousing racism in his newsletters, where another makes the laughable claim that the people he meant to insult were “blah” rather than “black,” and where nearly all of them have used coded racial language. In such a climate it’s impossible to ignore the ramifications that such a killing and its immediate aftermath—the acceptance by police of Zimmerman’s insistence that he acted in self-defense, the unwillingness of that same department to investigate the incident any further, to test Zimmerman for substances, or to revoke his gun license—suggest that in America, or at least in this particular gated community, there are two different, unequal legal codes that law enforcement follows. We may discover, although this is becoming less likely the more information about him and about the department, that the faith local police put in Zimmerman’s word is justified. But unlike the incident in Afghanistan it will be because “our side” has been examined minutely. While Zimmerman, and Bales, deserves a presumption of innocence for their motives, there should be no assumption there will be a lack of consequences.