The Truth About Trayvon


avi-shafranBy Rabbi Avi Shafran

Could there possibly be anything else to say about the George Zimmerman trial that hasn’t already been said?

After all, the supporters of Mr. Zimmerman, who killed teenager Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida last year, have made clear all along their belief that Mr. Martin assaulted Mr. Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, and that the latter shot his alleged assailant in self-defense.  Of course, as everyone knows now, the jury found no reason to endorse a different scenario.

And defenders of Mr. Martin have, both before and after the verdict, made their own, different, version of the happening known – that the teenager was an innocent victim of a trigger-happy, racist cop-wannabe who targeted Mr. Martin because of the color of his skin.

Pundits have since tirelessly trumpeted their convictions, either that the verdict was a triumph of justice or a travesty thereof.

But there is indeed something else to say about the case, and it may well be the most important thing to say.  And that is: No one alive but George Zimmerman actually knows what happened that night. And so “taking sides” on the subject is the height of ridiculousness.

Somehow, that self-evident fact seems to have become overwhelmed by all the reaction to the verdict.  President Obama came closest to reacting reasonably, stating that Mr. Martin’s death was a tragedy but that “we are a nation of laws, and a jury has spoken” and asking that “every American… respect the call for calm reflection from two parents who lost their young son.”  More recently, he added “context” to his reaction, saying that the dead teen “could have been me 35 years ago,” and that even though “somebody like Trayvon Martin was statistically more likely to be shot by a peer than he was by somebody else,” the rallies and protests that have followed the verdict were “understandable,”

Those rallies and protests, thankfully, didn’t degenerate into riots, as some had feared. There were, however, gatherings of outraged citizens chanting slogans about justice; and, in some cities, vandalism of cars and bottle-throwing at cops (nice justice there). Al Sharpton, never one to squander an opportunity to capitalize on tragedies in the black community, announced that he will lead a national “Justice for Trayvon” day in 100 cities to press for federal civil rights charges against Mr. Zimmerman (which, unless new evidence somehow emerges, seems like a futile effort).

And for their part, the usual talk-radio pontificators did their usual pontificating, holding up the verdict (a reasonable one, considering the dearth of evidence) as evidence itself, somehow, that Mr. Zimmerman’s account must be true.

All the surety-silliness leads, or should lead, to some serious thinking on the part of people given to such endeavors – especially Jews, who pride themselves on being thoughtful people.

There are certainly certainties in most people’s lives, convictions that are rightly embraced for any of a number of valid reasons.  They include fundamental things, like belief in a Creator, and that the world has a purpose, and that human beings are privileged to find their roles in that purpose.  And derivative truths, like the rightness of treating others kindly, and the wrongness of things like murder or theft.

And then there are things we know to be true because we experienced or witnessed them.  But to proclaim our certitude about an occurrence removed from our personal experience, and about which we have been served conflicting claims, is senseless.  We’re entitled (at least sometimes) to our suspicions, but suspicion is not knowledge.  The truth about Trayvon?  That we don’t know what transpired.

And even in cases where we can make “educated guesses” – where we possess some, but incomplete, knowledge – it is always beneficial to keep in the backs of our minds (or, even better, their fronts) acceptance of the fact that, for all our intelligence and gut feelings, we still might be wrong.

That’s true not only regarding things like Trayvon Martin’s killing but in myriad realms, like politics and public policy, where all too many of us all too often feel compelled to take unyielding positions based on incomplete knowledge, and see any other position as obviously misguided.

Doing so, though, telegraphs a special sort of ignorance – ignorance of our own ignorance.

© 2013 Rabbi Avi Shafran

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  1. Not only the rank and file, but also leaders, need to thoroughly understand the limits of their knowledge and expertise.

  2. I thought readers of Matzav would be more knowledgeable and intelligent. The actual self defense law in Florida is no different than any other state, and what George Zimmerman did would be legal in any other state or any law based country.

    And yeah, I would not recommend beating someone up pummeling him to the ground and not stopping while he is screaming for help for about a minute…

  3. Another thing that can be said. Had Zimmerman’s name been Martinez or Gonzalez, this case would never had gone to court. This case only became famous because his name is Zimmerman. This Hispanic was a victim of subtle anti-semitism. Of course, it can not be proven, but I am convinced of it nevertheless.

  4. Sometimes, justice on a societal level requires that we make decisions based on circumstantial evidence. As Rav Tarfon said to Rav Akiva, there are more important considerations than individual justice.

  5. I don’t see how Obama’s gratuitous mention of “it could of been me 35 years ago” etc. is the most reasonable response.

  6. Although President Obama’s original statement was tempered and wise, his later comments added fuel to the fire by implying racism in a case where there is no evidence that any existed. Liberal leaders of all races are using this trial to fire up the masses for political gain. Surprised?

  7. “none except George Zimmerman knows what happened that night”.

    Does anyone claim to know what happened?

    The jury acquitted because they could find no law that was broken, and the black community is outraged that a kid is dead and the verdict didn’t go their way.

    That’s the long and the short of it.

    A. B.

  8. Sorry I did not proofread and Oh my it looks like, I don’t know how to spell, sorry for the errors. I should have done that. It looks bad, won’t forget to do that. Thanks