When George Zimmerman inevitably gets himself killed

When George Zimmerman inevitably gets himself killed, I’m sure I won’t be alone in feeling happy about it, in feeling that a standing offense to the concept of justice has been belatedly mitigated. My feeling that day will not, however, mean that I “support” road rage, or bar fights, or suicide by cop, or doing dangerous stunts on a reality show because you have no other way to make money, or whatever concrete incident — almost certainly not a legal trial followed by a government-ordered execution — brings about his inevitable death by violence. Nor, indeed, would my gladness at his public execution, were such a thing to occur, mean that I “support” the death penalty, much less the US’s specific racist implementation of it.

I’m sure we all have people about whom we have similar feelings: Darren Wilson, for instance, or Donald Trump. Or Osama bin Laden — a wealthy nihilist who committed mass murder and bragged about it. I once wrote about how bin Laden deserved to die, and I got a lot of pushback. It seemed to me that a lot of that pushback came from empty formalism, of moralistic (“we shouldn’t celebrate anyone‘s death!”) and liberal (“justice can only ever happen in a courtroom!”) kinds, or in some especially tedious cases, both at once. The most serious responses, though, pointed out the extreme fucked-up-ness of the US strike on bin Laden — a concern I shared, and continue to share. Yet it still remains the fact that one fewer wealthy nihilist is out walking around, an outcome I can applaud without “supporting” the means.

And now, here’s where we make an even more controversial turn. You remember how after 9/11, Americans were appalled to see people in other countries celebrating? I think that here, too, it would probably be a mistake to conflate their jubilation at an outcome — the United States, the mighty heartless conquerer, has been knocked down a peg! — and “support” for the concrete methods employed to attain that outcome. If you would feel glad if George Zimmerman one day woke up dead — if you, like so many, were disappointed when reports that he was “shot in the face” did not produce the result common sense might infer from such a description — then maybe, just maybe, you have the capacity to empathize with that jubilation. Maybe we can all admit that we’re human and that our gut-level sense of justice is often more retributive than restorative, and that sometimes we take what satisfaction we can get, without necessarily endorsing everything that led up to that satisfaction.

15 thoughts on “When George Zimmerman inevitably gets himself killed

  1. Why not go further and extend our empathy to Bin Laden and Zimmerman too? We are lucky that we live in a society that has given us opportunities to enact identities that exclude the kind of violence those men perpetrate, but that same society perpetrates its own violence and is ultimately responsible for creating the kinds of unstable identities like those of Zimmerman and Wilson that we then externalize our own murderous impulses onto instead of seeing in them our own failure and our own rejected identity components.

  2. “I’m sure we all have people about whom we have similar feelings: Darren Wilson, for instance, or Donald Trump.”

    So you think that specific jubilation at the death of a specific, reprehensible person is the moral equivalence of general jubilation at the deaths of thousands of random, innocent people? Is that really where academic moral philosophy/theology is at these days? So much for the aretaic turn!

  3. In the case of 9/11, I doubt those crowds were saying, “Fuck yeah, the secretary on floor 57 is dead!” or “I always hated the fry cook at the WTC McDonald’s!” As I clearly stated in the post, the victim whose suffering they were applauding was America, and from their perspective America is anything but innocent.

  4. “So you think that specific jubilation at the death of a specific, reprehensible person is the moral equivalence of general jubilation at the deaths of thousands of random, innocent people?”

    We ourselves have coldly murdered hundreds of thousands of random, innocent people and celebrated it as a blow to the enemy, and on the other hand we generally condemn violence from personal motives like hatred or resentment or envy. The first is the consequence of the second, because once we disavow our own violent and aggressive impulses and project them onto an external other, any means becomes acceptable in the never-ending fight to destroy them. We should recognize that the racist and the terrorist other are the same as us. That way we don’t have to hate them anymore because our identities are not threatened by them but rather include them, and we can see more clearly what steps we must take to help solve social problems like racism and terrorism.

  5. Emily, I get your point on a certain level, but I feel like the whole “projection” theory has it flaws. First, it is certain that we disavow our uncomfortable impulses and lodge them into outside forces that become even more malevolent. I get this. I’m studying to be a psychoanalyst and it’s certainly true. However, I feel that this type of deployment of psychological ideas onto political realities has its shortcomings. For instance, there are distinctions between individuals. Even though we all have murderous, primitive impulses does not mean that we’re all the same. An individual’s decision to act upon such impulses has meaning. Thought is not the same as action. I often feel like liberals attempt to flatten differences between individuals by claiming that we are all essentially the same and that judgment should be suspended. However, I feel entirely comfortable hating someone for being a violent, destructive individual while also recognizing that, in a different situation, I might act in a similar manner. If I acted upon such violent impulses, I’d likely hate myself and I would expect others to similarly condemn me. Empathy does not preclude judgment. I just don’t think that the whole issue of racism can be solved by simply recognizing the underlying projective processes that contribute to racial prejudice and anxiety.

  6. Violent and destructive individuals are essentially the same as us. The cause of their behavior is trauma and damaged identities. Unlike us upstanding, law-abiding people, they have not been given opportunities to enact identities that allow them to gain recognition for pro-social behavior, so they are forced to gain recognition in antisocial ways. Our hatred of them is not the result of clear-eyed judgment and condemnation, but of our resistance to accept the truth about ourselves and our identities and the way that we upstanding, law-abiding people contribute to the traumatic conditions that create such damaged identities in the first place. The difference between us and them is that we are in a position to take responsibility for improving those conditions. If we don’t, it’s because we don’t really want to solve problems like racism and terrorism, but are instead happy to bolster our identities by reassuring ourselves we are us and they are them because there is some essential difference between us.

  7. Okay, let’s say I recognize this similarity and stop disavowing people who do destructive things. How do I act on this knowledge? I think there’s a case to be made that nothing would have to change — I could just hold my correct opinions and be done.

  8. I guess just having my correct opinions wouldn’t be enough because I’ve deprived myself of the recognition for being a good person or a law abiding citizen or a progressive or whatever that I used to rely on, so I’m compelled to find a more substantive form of recognition, a recognition from the real in the form of positive social change.

  9. And surely positive social change would include restraining the actions of destructive people, right? And there’s no guarantee that those people would be amenable to reform or rehabilitation. I just don’t see the policy agenda.

  10. It’s not enough to feel good that you have the right idea. You must feel bad about the possibility of feeling good that you have the right idea, and for that, you can feel good.

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