In the wake of recent tragedies, Liam Day believes our society is clinging desperately to the Puritanical notion that good and evil are features we can see from the outside.
On February 26th, George Zimmerman, during his turn on a neighborhood watch in Sanford, Florida, shot and killed Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old African-American who was returning to his father’s house after a short trip to a nearby convenience store. To George Zimmerman, Trayvon Martin appeared high and suspicious.
On March 11th, Sergeant Robert Bales conducted an unauthorized foray from Combat Outpost Belamby in the Panjawi district of Afghanistan, during which he killed 16 men, women, and children. In the wake of the shootings, family and friends have described Sergeant Bales as normal, good, and level-headed. He was, apparently, a devoted father. Speculation has swirled around what could have made him snap.
Some of the speculation in the wake of Trayvon Martin’s death has been of, well, a slightly different sort. For instance, Geraldo Rivera, in a blatant attempt to remain relevant, went on Fox News and claimed that Trayvon Martin might still be alive if he hadn’t been wearing a hoodie the night he was shot. I cannot believe he is alone in thinking this.
The smartass in me wants to ask Geraldo whether he believes New England Patriot coach Bill Belichick is likewise in danger every Sunday during football season. Or whether I will be safe when I leave the house later to meet my wife for a drink because I will put on a hooded sweatshirt on a relatively cool March evening in Boston.
I’m not sure that, as a factual statement, what Geraldo said is wrong. But I believe, perhaps because he doesn’t want to or because he does not have the wherewithal, he has not asked the question we should all be asking: What does it say about our society that, as a white man, I can leave my house in a hooded sweatshirt and not be targeted, but Trayvon Martin, a black teenager, couldn’t?
What Geraldo’s statements reveal all too fully is that Puritanism is alive and well in the American consciousness. As a society, we believe there are outward signs that will tell us the person we pass on the sidewalk is good or bad.
And we are surprised when someone like Sergeant Bales belies those signs and commits an atrocity, and in our confusion, we search for answers that will not only explain the atrocity, but restore a version of our society that will allow us to continue to believe we can tell good people from bad. It is far easier to believe that someone “snapped” than that they might have possessed the pathology to commit a heinous act all along. Or, more frighteningly, that we might possess the very same pathology.
Clearly, George Zimmerman believes in the outward signs of election. In his—for lack of a better term—career as a member of the neighborhood watch, he has called 911 46 times and, at least according to the Los Angeles Times, the preponderance of those calls have been made to report African-American suspects.
Sergeant Robert Bales, a 38-year-old white man, who was a normal, level-headed father, must have snapped. It’s the only possible explanation.
Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old black male, who was wearing a hooded sweatshirt, must be up to no good. It’s the only possible explanation.
Yes, we still live in a society imbued with the Puritanic belief that the world can be neatly divided into bad and good and that the signs distinguishing between them are there to read if we only know what to look for. Unfortunately, for too many of us, those signs are written in black and white.