Trying the Victim

Anyone familiar with the history of how rape cases are prosecuted and defended should recognize the M.O. of conservative opinion-leaders who are pushing back against the furor over the death of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin: blame the victim. And so we are being treated to an assortment of facts, half-facts, assertions and inventions about the kid’s questionable character and alleged misdeeds, none of which, of course, involves behavior punishable by the death penalty.

Aside from trying to undermine public sympathy for the victim, and growing sentiment against the permissive gun laws that seem to have encouraged George Zimmerman to play cops-and-bad-guys with a real-live hand cannon, the idea is to plant the suggestion that Trayvon Martin “asked for it”–a thuggish “youth” (itself a racially-tinged code word) wearing a thuggish hoodie roams the streets of a gated community after being booted from school on drug charges, hungry not just for Skittles and iced tea but for a confrontation. And he got one, and thus got what he deserved.

A lot of this stuff is clearly coming from the police who failed to make an arrest and the prosecutors who concluded Zimmerman was protected by the Stand Your Ground law. Now let’s be clear: that law, bad as it is, does not say anyone claiming to be interested in protecting his neighborhood can stalk, aggressively confront, and then execute anyone looking suspicious or inspiring–rationally or not–fear. What it does essentially do, however, is make the use of deadly force in an ambiguous conflict vastly less culpable. Once blows are exchanged, a gun is not necessarily any different from a fist, a foot, or anything else that can inflict serious physical damage.

But for there to be any clear-cut legal protection for Zimmerman, making even an official investigation of the facts unnecessary, you have to believe, somehow, that the guy with the SUV and the gun was defending himself against the guy with the sneakers and the Skittles. And so the implausible but not impossible story is circulated whereby Zimmerman “investigated” Martin, retreated to his car intending to go his own way in peace, got ambushed by this “youth” on a rampage, and then had to use his “equalizer.”

Maybe that’s how it actually went down, but it’s hard to imagine that the facts so clearly establish that’s how it actually went down, to the extent that the police had no reason to arrest Zimmerman and the prosecutors were helpless to put together a case against him. And it’s hardly reassuring that said police and prosecutors aren’t putting out their side of the story in sworn public statements or an official proceeding, but are instead leaking it to the press in hopes the more obvious interpretation of the situation can be undermined.

And so the dead kid gets put on trial in the court of public opinion, less to protect Zimmerman than to vindicate the public servants who seem to have taken one look at the situation and decided Trayvon Martin was indeed “asking for it.”

Pseudo-journalist Geraldo Rivera was indeed prophetic in fixating on Martin’s apparel in expressing sympathy for his killer, sounding exactly like the men who figure any attractive woman who gets raped must have been “asking for it.” It’s a saddening and maddening pattern.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.