By Rabbi Avi Shafran
Could there possibly be anything else to say about the George Zimmerman trial that hasn’t already been said?
After all, the supporters of Mr. Zimmerman have made clear all along their belief that Mr. Martin assaulted Mr. Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer in Sanford, Florida, and that the latter shot his alleged assailant in self-defense. Of course, as everyone knows now, the jury found no reason to endorse a different scenario.
And defenders of Mr. Martin have, both before and after the verdict, made their own, different, version of the happening known—that the teenager was an innocent victim of a trigger-happy, racist cop-wannabe who targeted Mr. Martin because of the color of his skin.
Pundits have since tirelessly trumpeted their convictions, either that the verdict was a triumph of justice or a travesty thereof.
But there is indeed something else to say about the case, and it may well be the most important thing to say. And that is: No one alive but George Zimmerman actually knows what happened that night. And so “taking sides” on the subject is the height of ridiculousness.
Somehow, that self-evident fact seems to have become overwhelmed by all the reaction to the verdict. President Obama came closest to reacting reasonably, stating that Mr. Martin’s death was a tragedy but that “we are a nation of laws, and a jury has spoken” and asking that “every American . . . respect the call for calm reflection from two parents who lost their young son.” More recently, he added “context” to his reaction, saying that the dead teen “could have been me 35 years ago,” and that even though “somebody like Trayvon Martin was statistically more likely to be shot by a peer than he was by somebody else,” the rallies and protests that have followed the verdict were “understandable.”
Those rallies and protests, thankfully, didn’t degenerate into riots, as some had feared. There were, however, gatherings of outraged citizens chanting slogans about justice; and, in some cities, vandalism of cars and bottle-throwing at cops (nice justice there). Al Sharpton, never one to squander an opportunity to capitalize on tragedies in the black community, announced that he would lead a national “Justice for Trayvon” day in 100 cities to press for federal civil-rights charges against Mr. Zimmerman (which, unless new evidence somehow emerges, seems like a futile effort).
And for their part, the usual talk-radio pontificators did their usual pontificating, holding up the verdict (a reasonable one, considering the dearth of evidence) as evidence itself, somehow, that Mr. Zimmerman’s account must be true.
All the surety-silliness leads, or should lead, to some serious thinking on the part of people given to such endeavors—especially Jews, who pride themselves on being thoughtful people.
There are certainly certainties in most people’s lives, convictions that are rightly embraced for any of a number of valid reasons. They include fundamental things, like belief in a Creator, and that the world has a purpose, and that human beings are privileged to find their roles in that purpose. And derivative truths, like the rightness of treating others kindly, and the wrongness of things like murder or theft.
And then there are things we know to be true because we experienced or witnessed them. But to proclaim our certitude about an occurrence removed from our personal experience, and about which we have been served conflicting claims, is senseless. We’re entitled (at least sometimes) to our suspicions, but suspicion is not knowledge. The truth about Trayvon? That we don’t know what transpired.
And even in cases where we can make “educated guesses”—where we possess some, but incomplete, knowledge—it is always beneficial to keep in the backs of our minds (or, even better, their fronts) acceptance of the fact that, for all our intelligence and gut feelings, we still might be wrong.
That’s true not only regarding things like Trayvon Martin’s killing but in myriad realms, like politics and public policy, where all too many of us all too often feel compelled to take unyielding positions based on incomplete knowledge, and see any other position as obviously misguided.
Doing so, though, telegraphs a special sort of ignorance—ignorance of our own ignorance. v
© 2013 Rabbi Avi Shafran
“It’s All in the Angle” (Torah Temimah Publications), a collection of selected essays by Rabbi Shafran, is available from Judaica Press.