The American networks are currently running the tragic story of the death of Treyvon Martin, a young boy who was shot dead by a neighbourhood watch guard on 26th February this year. The teen was walking home after buying some skittles and an icetea in the local shop as he was trailed, stopped and eventually shot dead by the guard. The guard claimed self-defense. The teen was unarmed.
Yet the local police department says it cannot arrest the guard since under the Florida Law it is sufficient for somebody to claim that he or she feels threatened in order to use their gun. Apart from the odious racial undertones of the killing, it is the legal aspect that brings the British notion of common sense into sharp relief.
The Florida Law is clear that the threshold for the use of a weapon in self-defence is 'the perception of being threatened'. This effectively privileges the perspective of the person who claims to act in self-defence, regardless whether or not any reasonable grounds of self-defence actually existed. As the original proposer for the law in the Florida Senate has made clear, he thinks that the law does not permit people to pursue, confront and kill. In other words, the local police department had sufficient grounds to investigate the killing and possibly to charge the guard with murder.
However the intricacies of the law, this isn't the first time that the Florida law has highlighted the difficulty with self-defence legislation in the US. Last year a father was shot dead in a playground after being being confronted by a passer-by who started an argument. The passer-by claimed that he felt threatened by the father. The mistake of the father: having talked back. Needless to say that the father was black, while the killer was white. Americans are rarely far from racial controversies.
Yet, although the racial dimension makes this law of 'standing our ground' controversial, it is the privileging in the law of 'perceptions' of one party that strikes one as odd. The police said that they had no reason not to believe that the killer felt threatened by his victim. This represents a fundamental legal change from centuries of juridical tradition: it dispenses with the duty of courts to deliberate on the correct version of events.
In effect, if there are no eye witnesses, the Florida Law would stipulate in this interpretation that claiming self-defence is sufficient to have immunity for action. It seems fair to say that, whatever the merits of the latest development in the case, the Florida Law represents a strange over-emphasis of the rights of people versus their obligations not to aggravate situations. The sole stress on rights at the expense of personal responsibilities in any given situation must surely run counter to the need for mutual understanding and respect.
The current campaign to bring the killer of Treyvon Martin to justice stresses that Treyvon was denied the right to live. That may be correct. But if we construe social encounters of strangers as a recognition of rights only, we fail to realise that living together with others in communities is about responsibilities just as much as it is about rights. One of those responsibilities may be to avoid harm to others and social confrontation. There is no fast rule about this, and no law will enshrine this; it is one of those resources of social life that are hard to codify: we conventionally call it civility.
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