I’ve never been able to get over the crucial minutes of George Zimmerman’s encounter with Trayvon Martin. I’m not talking about the initial struggle, or even the fatal shooting. That’s where most of the media coverage has been, and for good reason. A life has been lost and it’s important to figure out exactly what happened.
I just have never been able to answer a basic question: Why was Zimmerman bothering Martin to begin with?
For me, the Trayvon Martin case is about something that is fundamental to America: the ability to go out and take a walk or pick up some junk food without being hassled. I’m aware that “hassle” is a term straight out of 1973, and maybe that’s deliberate. When I was growing up in Maryland in the 1970s, my mom had a term for people in the neighborhood who made it their job to mind everything that went on there: the sidewalk superintendent.
Sidewalk superintendents were mostly decent people just trying to protect the neighborhood. Bill Bennett once noted that in the old days the neighborhood watch consisted of mothers on their front porches who could spring into action when they saw something amiss. Such people are an important part of creating a safe and thriving community. Indeed, George Zimmerman had foiled at least one robbery in Twin Lakes, the crime-ridden complex in Florida where the shooting took place.
Yet the oddballs, the Boo Radley weirdoes who keep strange hours and can sometimes be seen walking around in the middle of the night, are also a great part of America.
Trayvon Martin was not one of these; he was a teenage kid. But he was exercising his right to take a nocturnal sojourn and enter a quiet space where the world did not intrude. It set my conservative (even libertarian-leaning) alarm off when I heard the 911 tape where Zimmerman tells police that Trayvon Martin looks like he “is up to no good.” It was just too reminiscent of some sidewalk superintendents I knew as a kid. They were the guys who appeared the second you lit some firecrackers or killed a tick with a magnifying glass. They weren’t the get-off-my-lawn dads, who were often veterans who wanted to be left alone. The sidewalk superintendents were the soldier and policeman wannabes. They were control freaks more than out-and-out ball busters.
Conservatives are always emphasizing the importance of prudence, of knowing the difference between abusing someone else’s freedom and acting out of common sense that’s rooted in knowledge of human nature. A good example of this is the famous “broken windows” theory of policing, which holds that by enforcing the laws against minor infractions, you will prevent bigger ones. If a broken window in a neighborhood is instantly replaced and the person who broke it is punished accordingly, it sends a signal to others that the people who live there care about the place and won’t tolerate larger crimes. It’s not totalitarian to require that people on your street keep their homes up to a reasonably decent standard. In fact, it increases the freedom of everyone on the block to live freely and without crime.
The Trayvon Martin tragedy is a case of a sensible policy, a broken windows theory, taken to an extreme. The press and the left will use it to paint everyone on the right as racist gun nuts, which is to be expected. But sensible people know that liberals are absolutely genius at abusing their freedom to work out personal and emotional problems. They sue schools and neighbors over petty and ridiculous things, like someone flying an American flag without a permit. And as I have argued before, liberalism’s greatest trick is that it has convinced the American people that it has not moved left since the death of John F. Kennedy. Liberalism, the philosophy of race-baiting, atheism, abortion-on-demand and the ever-expanding state, is now officially a radical proposition. And of course, the left would be reacting completely differently if the situation were but slightly different. Imagine if Trayvon was a young white man who was active in his Bible study group and that George Zimmerman were black. Al Sharpton would be nowhere to be seen.
I like to think that in that same hypothetical situation good conservatives would be asking serious questions about whether or not George Zimmerman was overzealous in his duties — that is, whether George Zimmerman was a sidewalk superintendent. The question is not what happened when Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman encountered each other, but what led up to that encounter. Liberals are so busy destroying the Constitution that it’s easy to just assume bad faith is involved in everything they touch. But every conservative and libertarian should be concerned about an America where you can’t even go out for some candy without, yes, being hassled by the man.
Mark Judge is the author of A Tremor of Bliss: Sex, Catholicism, and Rock ‘n’ Roll.