On the Acquittal of a Killer

Hi there, Internet.

George Zimmerman was acquitted of all charges today in his homicide of Trayvon Martin. This is going to prompt a lot of soul-searching among people who know in their hearts the nature of that homicide, and the nature of the trial surrounding it. We who sit in different states and countries, who hear only the reports of the media, have a only vague sense of what transpired–and even from that vaugeness, we draw something that pains us.

As Atticus Finch reminds us in To Kill a Mockingbird,

“You’re gonna hear some ugly talk about this in school. But I want you to promise me one thing: That you won’t get into fights over it, no matter what they say to you.”

We are all the children of Atticus Finch tonight. We exist on the periphery of something tremendous, something we know to be unjust; but we don’t really know what transpired. We are unreliable second-hand media reports, polluted by the commentary from armchair pundits–a commentary which is seldom well-constructed on either side, seldom backed by fact. In a case where even the jurors are starved for verifiable information, what can we outraged foreigners really do, but speculate?

For this reason, perhaps, our spoken and written reactions amount to little more than “ugly talk.” We default to our cuss-words, or agonize over words which cut more, because they are powerful. We will speak to hurt because we are hurt. It’s our way.

But the justice system, and its success or failure, is one facet of this world. It’s the one we have been taught to believe in almost with exclusivity when it comes to crime. Either a criminal is guilty in court, and punished, or acquitted, and walks. Even the details of sentencing are not important to most of us far off tele-gawkers. We only wish to know that justice has, somehow, been served.

But justice does not begin and end with the power of a white jury to decide it and a white judge to impose it. It begins with a sound–the sound a teenaged boy’s body makes as it empties itself of fluids, strength, future, and life.

I don’t know what that sound is, and unless you’ve shot a teenaged boy to death in your arms, you don’t know it either. I imagine a squish of some kind–some sort of pulpy liquidy sound, but smaller, like a small slop bucket being emptied. You probably hear it as if underwater, ears still ringing from the shot you fired, from the twitch of your finger that instantly reduced a human being to a leaking biomass of tissue. I don’t know, really, what that would sound like.

George Zimmerman does.

It’s the kind of sound, I imagine, that you wouldn’t forget if you heard it. It’s the kind of sound you hear, like tinnitus, when the room is quiet and no one is speaking to you. In those last moments of loneliness before sleep, when even the one lying next to you is a world away in dream, I imagine the mysterious sound of a boy dying in your arms, by your hand, echoes. It is an ugly sound–it must be–and a persistent one.

We can say what we like about the justice system. This carries us into the realm of law, history, politics, sociology. But none of these tell us about that sound–that sound. None of these tell us anything about the blood that seeps under your fingernails, and stains your bones. No one can see that blood except George Zimmerman now. Even a doctor couldn’t find it: the tests come back negative. Martin’s blood hasn’t really leached into his bones.

Except it has. Of course it has. But only he knows it, knows it, with certainty. And only a poet can even guess that it’s there.

We hear, too often, that a guilty verdict does not undo the act that caused it. It does not bring back the dead. But neither does an acquittal. The truth, perhaps, cannot be couched in a binary, nor can it be undone by one.

Today, George Zimmerman is not a criminal. He is not a murderer. He has not committed manslaughter. But he is a boy-killer; this has been decided not by justice, but by truth. There is no parole from this truth, no pardon, no country he can move to that will expunge the deed, no soap he can buy that will scrub the teenaged boy’s blood from off his bones.

We who are not boy-killers can only speculate on the world Zimmerman has entered, the world of having taken a life. It is a world from which he will not escape. He will die there, having killed. It will affect how he thinks of his own mortality each day until it comes.

To kill another human being, I think, is in some sense a diablerie regardless of the circumstance. It is an eating of souls. It is to take the person you kill into yourself, to forever entwine your destiny with theirs. We have all lost our fellow human beings; sometimes we remember them. We let them live on in us, let our lives be shaped by them when and how we choose. But only killers are truly haunted. Only killers, for a moment of power, endure a lifetime of true powerlessness which no outer acquittal can restore.

Now, what if the killing is justified by self-defence, or by war, by racist beliefs, by divine mandate? These things, in various societies, can make a killer immune to punishment from without, in this life and the next. They protect him from the State, or perhaps from a vengeful God. They shield him even from the media. All the circumstances of his case–at least, all the favourable ones–form an armour around him, a barrier between the killer and the hostility of the outside world. If the circumstances are true–if the killing truly and clearly was in self-defense–this armour can be nigh-impenetrable.

But the armour of niggling details, the armour of semantics and jurisprudence and reasonable doubt, protects the killer only against the outside. This is the territory where we debate whether he was a murderer, a felon, a scapegoat, a hero, a monster.

Meanwhile, on the inside of the armour of detail, George Zimmerman is a killer.

Is it better to become a killer of human beings by self-defense, or serial torture, or by noble act of war? In a court of law–indeed, in society–the experience of a school or workplace spree shooter is fundamentally different from that of a Navy SEAL. But within the self–in that quietest of inner places–what does it mean to step across the line of taking a life, for any reason? Does self-defense absolve us from the transformation into a little, petty, deluded god, with a tiny spark of power over life and death, and no inborn sense of how to use it?

To hold another’s life in your hand and choose to end it must be a queer sensation. We talk about humanity as the only animal which hunts itself for sport; in most cases, this simply isn’t so. We fight, and display the common animal traits of rage, and greed. Even the worst of our corruption is merely a sophisticated take on other animal instincts. We are apex predators, after all.

But we do not, most of us, kill our own.

What can we truly say about those who do? Sometimes we make them “criminals,” as if we can somehow put them into the family of cheque-fraudsters, of robbers, of people who say or look at forbidden things, of people who endanger our social mechanisms by treason or corruption–but all of these are acts of a different order entirely. Annihilating a sentient person forever is something utterly unlike our other crimes. It is, short of suicide, the most direct attack we can make on the fabric of reality itself.

There is still a place to talk about the details, the facts, the themes of the Trayvon Martin case. There is still an arena to debate race, and justice, and injustice, and fear, and aggression, and self-defense. But that place is not here. That kind of justice is beyond us.

What is not beyond us, however, is the idea that George Zimmerman was acquitted of criminal wrongdoing–but that there is no acquittal from killing. Trayvon Martin has been devoured into his killer; he is on the inside now. There is no armour from him. There is no self-defence. There is no statute of limitations, nor pardon, nor legal recourse to separate Zimmerman from the victim within him.  He shot a teenaged boy in the heart, and emptied that whole being of meaning. That meaning has been absorbed into its executioner. Whatever it meant to be Trayvon Martin, that is a weight that George Zimmerman will carry inside him all the days of his life. Their names are forever entwined; in time when the civil matters are settled, and the legal bills paid, and even the media has quieted down–George Zimmerman will still hear that sound, that incessant, squelchy, mysterious sound of a killer killing.

There is no escape from being a killer of men. At the very most, there is only acquittal. Acquittal from the annihilation of another, I think, is the barest shadow of freedom, an ineffective tonic for the irreversible transformation of a man into a killer.

And that, dear Internet, is a comforting thought.


One thought on “On the Acquittal of a Killer

  1. A beautiful piece of writing. One thing I regret is that this burden is unlikely to be carried in a deeply conscious manner; rather, he is likely to retreat from it over time with a greater and greater separation from his own soul.

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