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Violence in America: The Teenage Menace vs the Teenage Martyr

It’s an understatement to say that the shooting of Trayvon Martin has raised tempers and stoked debate nationwide. Every question of violence, from the justifications thereof to the definitions of different types thereof, has been laid out for furious public inquiry. What angers people most is hard to say, but the combination of the victim’s youth and the shooter’s justification seems to hit a nerve.

Tragedy and rhetoric aside, what are the reasons for the altercation between Martin and George Zimmerman? Let’s exclude race for a moment. Residents of Sanford reported that Zimmerman was particularly focused on young males acting suspiciously at night. Neighbors heard shouting and reports emerged of a physical attack by Martin on Zimmerman, the nature of which has been described variously by different sources. Zimmerman reported to police that he felt “threatened” by Martin and thus was acting in self-defense; he is supported by the probably well-intentioned “Stand Your Ground” FL law that normally protects armed citizens from a manslaughter charge should they be attacked in a public place: it “relieves a citizen of responsibility to retreat when he feels threatened in a public place and gives him the right to “meet force with force,” according to this WaPo article on the topic.

What’s intriguing is that this law exists. There exists legal precedent for excusing the charges for, or lessening the sentence for, violent action when it is intended to defend oneself or others, or one’s properties. However, the difference between precedent and the “Stand Your Ground” law is the duty to retreat, a potential landmine in both bullying and domestic violence cases. (In fact, there have been recent incidents of school violence in which the duty of retreat was violated.) In other words, Zimmerman was within the law to escalate the conflict when he felt threatened.

Moreover, his justification, and the very basis of the Stand Your Ground law, is exactly what Tavris and Aronson described in Mistakes Were Made, But Not By Me. It’s the same logical process, not entirely indebted to Western legal-philosophical tradition, that justifies bullying and harassment along with all forms of violence. “What I want/expect and what I’m getting do not match; this person is responsible for/reflects that; they deserve to be punished.” After that, if one takes action, whether it’s a locker shove, a withdrawn promotion, or a waved gun, as the other person reacts, the aggressor does whatever needs to be done to affirm his intentions and expectations. And so the locker shove turns into a black eye, the withdrawn promotion turns into a demotion, the waved gun turns into a firing gun.

The next piece of the puzzle is Martin’s age. Youth are threatening, as discussed in The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager, because they are liminal. Moreover, throughout the past 150 years, adolescents have been at odds with adults in one way or another; they took their jobs in the last three decades of the 19th century; they took to black music and shorter hair in the first two decades of the 20th century; and they took over the population in the last half of the 20th century. They also are excluded from adults in numerous legal ways; the juvenile justice system kicked off in 1900 thanks to Benjamin E. Lindsey, and since then acts of violence by youths have largely been handled differently than comparable acts by adults (except in certain notable cases, such as the Phoebe Prince case). Thus there is not only a justification for certain types of violence, but a division between youth violence and adult violence that does little to protect or avenge victims and everything to reinforce the diametric opposition between those under 18 and those over.

Whatever happens to the Stand Your Ground law and to Zimmerman, or with the application of hate crime laws and juvenile court sentencing, I suspect Martin will be martyred for those changes. Yet we should not allow him to be; we should seek the facts and mourn his loss, of course, but we should not excuse his death as an impetus for change. Until our fundamental assumptions about violence and the design of our punishments changes with regard to youth, little will change beyond an increase in the number of youths who kill adults, adults who kill youths, and youths killing each other.