On February 23rd, Ahmaud Arbery was killed in a shooting as he jogged through a suburban neighborhood in Georgia. After two months of inaction, it took a widely shared video of Arbery’s death combined with national public outcry for authorities to arrest and charge Gregory McMichael, 64, and his son Travis McMichael, 34, with murder and aggravated assault.
The fundamental details of the case involve the report that “the McMichaels had grabbed two guns and followed Mr. Arbery in a truck after he ran past them,” arguing that “Mr. Arbery looked like the suspect in a string of nearby break-ins.” The McMichaels were legally carrying their weapons under Georgia’s “open carry” law, and claimed that they were attempting to make a citizen’s arrest. Finally, George E. Barnhill of Georgia’s Waycross Judicial Circuit stated that Mr. Arbery, who appeared to be unarmed, had initiated the fight with Travis McMichael, and was thus “allowed to use deadly force to protect himself.”
The racial aspect of this scenario — Ahmaud Arbery was black and Gregory and Travis McMichael are white — compounded by the suspicion of guilt based on a vague description of an alleged perpetrator cannot, and should not, be dismissed. However, without evidence which proves that this was a racially motivated attack, it is important to deal with the facts alone. Facts which, quite frankly, are damning in isolation, and raise several significant questions of the philosophy behind gun ownership, the concept of vigilantism and the notion of self defense.
Firstly, it is in no way antithetical to simultaneously support the Second Amendment as an inalienable right while also understanding that gun ownership is an awesome responsibility which must be taken seriously. In states which allow open carry, the fact that firearms are routinely visible does not diminish their monumental and serious purpose, which is to kill. With that in mind, the introduction of firearms into any confrontation is a deliberate act of escalation, and must be done with the acknowledgement of its clear and often violent consequences.
Secondly, there is a distinct difference between citizens who are active in the protection of their communities and those who take the law into their own hands. In this instance, it’s an obvious example of the latter, with an additional sense of potential entitlement given that Gregory McMichael was a former officer with the Glynn County Police Department. If they believed that Arbery had indeed committed a crime — for which there is little evidence — then they should have notified law enforcement. Instead, they opted to make a “citizen’s arrest” which — thanks to the video evidence — is utterly indefensible. According to Georgia Code:
A private person may arrest an offender if the offense is committed in his presence or within his immediate knowledge. If the offense is a felony and the offender is escaping or attempting to escape, a private person may arrest him upon reasonable and probable grounds of suspicion.
The supposed offense was not committed in their presence, and to argue that it was within their immediate knowledge makes the absurd profiling leap that Arbrey was guilty by nature of his existence in the neighborhood. Finally, unless we wish to redefine the nature of exercise, jogging is not synonymous with “escaping or attempting to escape,” especially when they deliberately blocked Arbery’s original path. Without evidence of a crime, the claims that his killing was a “modern-day lynching” are arguably accurate.
Finally, this dreadful event raises questions regarding the definition of self defense. The right to self defense is paramount if the right to life is threatened. The right to self defense is also paramount in “stand your ground” situations, but only when the “ground” is indeed “yours.” If you are the aggressor and you enter the ground occupied by another — which describes the actions of the McMichaels — then you cannot also reserve the right to “defend yourself” when you instigate conflict. Conversely, Ahmaud Arbery had every right to defend himself against two unknown private citizens who approached him with deadly weapons. While the line between victim and aggressor can be blurred in other scenarios, in this case it seems patently ridiculous that the McMichaels could claim victimhood when they effectively threatened Arbery with the aggressive and menacing nature of their presence.
While some element of this debate will — and probably should — focus on racial components, we must take more from this awful event beyond political slogans such as “Exercising while Black shouldn’t be a death sentence.” To make claims of racism or accusations of white supremacy without evidence does a disservice to the fight against racism and, in many ways, dilutes the true disgusting nature of this crime. Racism is an easy label to apply, and time will tell if it played a part. However, the harder label we must discuss is one of personal responsibility when it comes to gun ownership, the entitlement which enables vigilantism, and the concept of retrospective victimization to justify deadly aggression.
Ahmaud Arbery should be alive today. He and his family deserve justice.
Ian Haworth is a political commentator and the host of the Ian Haworth Show