By Brandon Ferdig
In our version of justice in America, we seek far more than righting the wrong. We want to see that the perpetrator serves time, is thrown behind bars, pays for what he did. In short, we like to see the perp suffer.
We seek revenge.
But why do we call for revenge when we know deep in our hearts that it's wrong? That two wrongs don't make a right? That eye for an eye makes the world go blind?
Recently, a friend on Facebook asked that George Zimmerman, the man who shot and killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, be prosecuted. I commented, "What good would come from prosecuting him?" A woman answered, "He should absolutely be punished for his actions ... Not punishing him, if guilty, sends a clear message that this kid's life is worth nothing."
To her — to many others as well — revenge has come to define justice. And if Zimmerman was to be left alone it would mean we don't care about Trayvon. But here's a news flash: Trayvon's life is a great loss, regardless of what happens to Zimmerman. Whether or not Zimmerman is given some kind of punishment does not validate Trayvon as a worthwhile human.
But we connect these two very strongly, and doing so causes a lot of problems.
First we see the angry reactions and demands tainted with revenge (some extraordinarily so, like the Black Panthers' bounty and Spike Lee's tweet of what he thought was Zimmerman's address). Meanwhile, much of the media coverage, under similar influence, is skewed to favor demands for the arrest and prosecution of Zimmerman.
The result? Ever-greater reactions from people on different sides of the racial divide, up to and including the character assassination of Trayvon Martin. How terrible — trying to make a murder victim look bad. In response, some are trying to sweep under the rug any information that might reflect negatively on Trayvon on the grounds that it's part of a smear campaign, as sometimes it is. But it may also be important information to acknowledge if we want a well-rounded view of this case.
Unfortunately, instead of well-rounded, we get polarized — and disturbingly political.
All of this happens because we connect justice to revenge. We must cut that cord. It's an insult to Trayvon to suggest his life was worthwhile if only we avenge his death.
This is not to say that people shouldn't face consequences for their actions. It is to say, though, that we ought to reconsider our ideas of justice. Beyond compulsory compensation for harms done, whether we take action ought to depend on whether it will protect the public safety.
Prison should be a last resort. It harms those imprisoned, their families and all of us, as the weight of supporting our prison population is extraordinary. Plus, many have served decades for being falsely accused.
By leaning too heavily on imprisonment and punishment, we deny the guilty a chance to try and right the wrongs they've caused.
Imprisoning Zimmerman might serve no productive function except to continue to warp our idea of justice. This case can be about more than racism and racial divides. It can serve as a jumping-off point for looking at justice in a whole new way, by identifying and removing the toxin that interferes with the unifying process: revenge. It can help us redefine justice to be about healing and love and how to best move forward when tragedy occurs.
Now that would truly leave a legacy to honor the life of Trayvon Martin.