The UK Trayvon Martin is Stephen Lawrence. The awful depths of the hostility of the police to the idea of prosecuting his racist killers is still being revealed, 20 years on, as we learn how undercover officers gathered intelligence on the Lawrence family as they campaigned for justice for their son. Modern states that are worthy of the name are meant to protect their citizens from violence, protecting all of us equally, under the law.
In the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, the US and Britain were the most active nations in the world in the quest to take up arms in the cause of spreading liberal democracy. Why neither nation is quite able to see why the targets of this largesse do not quite trust them, when both of us are still demonstrably unable to spread liberal democracy with impunity even among our own citizens, is quite the little mystery.
It is a little-acknowledged fact, yet an unanswerable one, that states exist in great part to maintain a monopoly on violence, either through the activities of their armed forces or via the upholding of the law.
The really disturbing thing about cases such as Martin’s and Lawrence’s is that they reveal how cavalierly states abuse this responsibility. The disconnect in the US can be seen more plainly than in Britain, because the US, as land colonized in recent history, maintains vigilantism as an integral part of its identity so avidly. That is what is at the root of its liberal gun laws — that is what killed Trayvon Martin.
This is one of those moments when the US — and its great ally, the UK — would do well to take a long look at itself. Zimmerman’s right to kill in “self-defense” does not contrast well with Edward Snowden’s fear of retribution. By exposing the fact that the e-mails of the citizens of the land of the free (and in Britain) could be plucked from the Internet at the state’s leisure, was not Snowden too defending himself, his fellow citizens and the idea of the US and of liberal democracy? However, no reluctance to arrest Snowden is evident.
We are told that this is all for our own protection — the fight against terrorism is an important part of the state’s protection of its monopoly on violence.
Yet, not for the first time in these troubled years since Sept. 11, 2001, one wonders how the US can have pretensions to being the world’s policeman, when it does not even police its own citizens with impartiality. And one wonders how the US can believe that part of its purpose is to be a beacon of democracy and freedom throughout the world, when it clearly believes that it should be able to spy on the private lives of the world’s citizens with impunity.
If the Martin case were “just” about racism, then that would be grotesque and awful enough, but it is even more basic than that. It is about the fragility of freedom, and how imperative it is that one person’s freedom, like one community’s, and one country’s, cannot be pursued at the expense of another’s. Zimmerman’s freedom to get on with his own life has been won at the cost of another man’s annihilation.
The disregard of the idea that all US citizens have an equal right to freedom and protection could not be made more painfully obvious than this. A monopoly on violence is a terrifying monopoly to hold. It should quite definitely not be shared so casually with self-appointed men from the neighborhood watch.