The shooting death of an unarmed black boy, Trayvon Martin, in the Florida town of Sanford, by a white Hispanic neighborhood watch volunteer, George Zimmerman, has raised many questions and issues. The positive side of this tragedy for me is that almost everyone wants to know the truth of what happened and to proceed from there. Moreover, our system of justice has procedures and mechanisms that maximize the prospects of uncovering and sorting out the truth from what is still a very confused mix of partial facts and assertions by interested parties (the friends and parents of Trayvon and of George).
When Trayvon’s death first rose to national attention, everyone’s initial reaction was colored by his or her personal biases (“priors”). If you are black, you initially and immediately accepted the outrage of Trayvon’s parents at the failure of the police to arrest the shooter of their unarmed son. If you are one of George’s friends you immediately accepted George’s claim of self-defense (the somewhat later revealed claim that he had been attached and beaten by Trayvon and fired in self-defense).
For most of the rest of us, the fact that Trayvon’s pictures depict him as a handsome, smiling, friendly youth (looking, as President Obama ill advisedly claimed, much like his own son would if he had one), while Zimmerman’s pictures depict him as, well, more or less the opposite, activated a bias toward beauty. Because Russian President Putin (and even more so outgoing President Medvedev) is handsome and fit, we assume he must be a better guy than fat and ugly Nikita Khrushchev (I just reviewed Khrushchev’s picture for the first time in many years and he actually isn’t THAT ugly). Because Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is handsome and speaks excellent American English, we assume that he must be right and good for Israel (despite all the evident to the contrary).
These are natural biases. We shouldn’t pretend that they don’t exist. What is important is that we can move beyond them when faced with contrary evidence. As allegations from each side of the Stanford tragedy (everyone agrees that it was a tragedy) along with bits of actual evidence accumulate, what seemed clear in the beginning to each of us (depending on where we started – i.e., our biases) becomes less clear. Trayvon’s past is not spotless. Did Zimmerman have blood on his cloths from being beaten by Trayvon as he claims (a surveillance video when he was taken into custody suggests not)? Whose voice was it shouting on the 911 recording (not Zimmerman’s according to two unofficial expert analyses)? ETC. ETC. With the passage of time and the collection of and vetting of more facts, the truth should clarify and emerge.
The positive side of the sad story is that virtually everyone outside of the immediate families genuinely wants to know the truth of what really happened. Hometown power figures have always been more able to bend our rules and procedures of justice to their interests than others but not without limit. Those limits in many ways have grown tighter. In this case, a southern town is bending over backward (after a slow start) to be and to appear to be fair. I suspect it would have been different fifty or a hundred years ago. Public opinion (i.e., our priors –biases), an important foundation of our conception of justice, has changed for the better.
I have no doubt that we will eventually know the truth of that night as fully as it is possible to know it.