On February 26, 2012 George Zimmerman saw a black teenager walking the streets of his Florida neighbourhood whom he didn’t like the look of, chased him down and shot him to death in cold blood. Unlike Zimmerman who carried a Kel-Tec 9mm semi-automatic handgun, Trayvon Martin was unarmed. He had committed no crime, but was merely a teenage boy talking on his cellphone and walking toward home. 28-year-old Zimmerman stalked him, confronted him, and shot him in the chest - ending his young life for the transgression of being a young black male in the wrong neighbourhood.
Of course it was through a judicial process by which it was determined that, despite the facts above, it was entirely legal for Zimmerman to hunt and kill Trayvon Martin. If Zimmerman perceived a danger to himself from Martin, he was within his rights to use lethal force to end his life – irrespective of the fact that Martin was an unarmed teenager armed only with a bag of candy.
It doesn’t take much reflection to see that there is something perverse about this state of affairs. Despite the fact that Zimmerman himself chose to instigate a confrontation with Martin , the justice system somehow chose to acquit him based on the level of personal threat he claimed to feel in this situation. For those with some historical memory of the experience of black people in America, this case fits into a long narrative of oppression, violence and exploitation that has all come with some sort disclaimer asserting its legal uprightness . Trayvon Martin’s experience, however, is only a microcosm of an even larger phenomenon.
The depraved interpretation of “justice” which saw Martin’s life as being forfeit goes far beyond just the experience of African-Americans and impacts the lives of countless of Iraqis, Afghans, Pakistanis, Somalis, Yemenis as well. Indeed, it would seem that being a young male of colour anywhere in the world means that the law can be twisted and manipulated in a way which ensures that any form of murder and torture committed against you can always be contrived as perfectly lawful and acceptable.
The banality of killing
Under the all-encompassing banner of the “War on Terror”, the United States government has embarked on a decade of borderless, opaque global violence. In this campaign no tool has been left untapped, including the utilisation of torture , indefinite detention without trial , and wholesale mass-murder . Remarkably enough, all of these once-taboo forms of state violence have been rationalised as perfectly acceptable and legal methods of policy. In effect, the government decided what gross human rights violations it wanted to perpetrate and then simply reverse-engineered a way of making it legal.
The language of morality and justice is completely alien to such a faux-legal structure, implicitly designed to maintain the violent hegemony of the strong over the weak and to utterly subjugate the latter wherever possible.
The United States drone warfare campaign against the villagers of North-Western Pakistan is one of the most high-profile of such programmes today. Its defenders slavishly proclaim its legality and utility , and cite this as a reflection of its inherent uprightness. Conor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic well summarised some of the most charming aspects of this campaign of state-sanctioned mass-murder:
“ Sometimes we know the identities of the people we kill but many times we don't. There are rules governing the drone strikes, but we can't tell you what they are, and the CIA is exempt from them when operating in Pakistan anyway. If you assume that all dead males of military age are militants, as we do, we figure we've killed thousands of militants and only hundreds of woman and children. We don't do anything to compensate the families of the innocents.”
So there you have it, wantonly killing people whose identities you don’t even know , without even a fig-leaf of public oversight or accountability is perfectly legal standard practice today. If those who are killed happen to be military-aged males they are posthumously declared “militants” even if their identities are never ascertained, even in death. The same type of logic which saw Trayvon Martin as an acceptable target for murder simply due to his status as a coloured young male in a troubled neighbourhood is applied on an industrial scale to innocent Pakistani villagers who are also unfortunate enough to live in a “bad area”.
It’s not difficult to see how this logic breaks down in practice. If George Zimmerman feels a black teenager in his neighbourhood is threatening, the law defends his right to proactively use lethal force to relieve himself of that threat. If the US government feels that impoverished villagers in one of the most isolated regions on the planet are similarly a threat, it can rain missiles onto their homes and murder them and their families in order to pre-emptively neutralise the danger they are claimed to pose.
No evidence is required, and a pre-existing legal expiation of wrongdoing ensures there is no reason for guilt or introspection in the aftermath. In both situations, whom this system of “law” is designed to serve and whom it is designed to grind into oblivion is glaringly obvious.
Under the Bush Administration, the search for legal justifications for the most unconscionable atrocities reached grotesque heights. In 2002 the Office of Legal Counsel of the US Department of Justice authored the now-infamous “ torture memos ”, which effectively gave the legal green light for the unthinkable atrocities which would soon be inflicted upon the bodies and minds of countless Iraqis, Afghans and others around the world. Former US Army General Barry McCaffrey documented what came out of these legal efforts :
“We tortured people unmercifully. We probably murdered dozens of them during the course of that, both the armed forces and the C.I.A.”
Innumerable nameless, faceless, individuals - most often completely innocent of any crime - were tortured, degraded and often murdered over the forthcoming years. No taboo was left uncrossed, including the kidnapping of wives and families as a pressure tactic, and the employment of rape against both male and female detainees . As much as this understandably shocks the morals of any decent human being, the self-righteous legalism developed by the authors of the torture regime ensured that little of the violence perpetrated would ever receive censure.
These campaigns of torture of course continued against the backdrop of wars themselves which were deemed legal by their perpetrators, but which failed to even meet the standards of the very international system they professed to operate under. The Nuremberg Trials carried out in the wake of World War II deemed aggressive war to be “ the linchpin of all war crimes ”. The invasion of Iraq was indeed a war of naked aggression, fought under false pretenses, which resulted in the destruction of the lives of millions of innocent people .
But in the depraved logic of its perpetrators, their own violence, however heinous, was always to be considered “legitimate” and “lawful” by its own definition. In the same twisted calculus, any attempt at resistance on the part of the Iraqi population against the foreign military occupation of their country would automatically make them “ illegal combatants ”, unworthy of even the basic human rights guaranteed by the Geneva Convention .
At the height of this self-righteous, self-justifying insanity, neoconservative ideologues such as John Podhoretz shamelessly discussed war crimes and ruminated on the tactical efficacy of genocide, writing in one particularly frank piece :
“What if the tactical mistake we made in Iraq was that we didn’t kill enough Sunnis in the early going to intimidate them and make them so afraid of us they would go along with anything? Wasn’t the survival of Sunni men between the ages of 15 and 35 the reason there was an insurgency and the basic cause of the sectarian violence now?”
However calculatedly bloodthirsty the war’s perpetrators and their propagandists were, they could always rest assured that their wanton violence would be protected by legal sanction - just as once-upon-a-time slave owners once would cite “legality” as a form of moral justification for their malicious, inhuman practices. Over time popular resentment has compelled the accommodation of some degree of nuance in the domestic sphere, and has thus forced the heirs of such criminals to go abroad to satiate much of their greed and bloodlust. But in many ways the use of the law to justify the murder and torture of innocents has changed little over the years.
Indeed, the same depraved interpretation of the law which made hunting and killing Trayvon Martin in cold blood “legal” is what allows the violence inflicted against countless others across the planet to considered acceptable, regardless of how monstrous. The present legal system, both domestic and international, is far from impartial but is rather rigged to protect the interests of the powerful and to ensure that they maintain a monopoly on violence (as well as economic privilege) in every possible circumstance. To add insult to injury the façade of legalism is discarded by the powerful whenever convenient; as well-demonstrated by the shielding of CIA torturer Robert Lady from criminal charges in Italy this past week.
The language of morality and justice is completely alien to such a faux-legal structure, implicitly designed to maintain the violent hegemony of the strong over the weak and to utterly subjugate the latter wherever possible. Those who cynically claim the law as a basis for absolute morality instead of what it really is - an accretion of societal norms - obscure reality and prevent the reflection required for meaningful reform to take place.
Thus, when the Florida soil ran red with Trayvon Martin’s blood and his killer walked free, it was not due to any kind of aberration or malfunction within the structure of the law. Rather, his case and the cases of innumerable others like him around the world - from Pakistan to Yemen to the American South, represents the functioning of a Kafkaesque legal system specifically established to ensure that disadvantaged, marginalised young men in similar circumstances will always be subject to legalised violence and oppression at the discretion of the privileged. If Martin’s death is not to be in vain it would behoove us to reflect upon and confront the full scope of legalised injustices and immoralities which are regularly committed both in the United States and around the world.
Murtaza Hussain is a Toronto-based writer and analyst focused on issues related to Middle Eastern politics.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.