“A man just can’t take the law into his own hands and hang people without hurting everybody in the world … because then he’s not just breaking one law, but all laws. Law is a lot more than words you put in a book … or judges or lawyers or sheriffs you hire to carry it out. It’s everything people ever have found out about justice … and what’s right and wrong. It’s the very conscience of humanity.
“There can’t be any such thing as civilization … unless people have a conscience …” — Don Martin’s letter to his wife, from “The Oxbow Incident,” 1943
“THE OXBOW INCIDENT,” A NOVEL BY WALTER VAN TILBURG CLARK made into a Western starring Henry Fonda, tells the story of a group of men who extract frontier “justice,” aka lynching, in retribution for the murder of a rancher and the theft of his cattle. Later they are torn with guilt upon learning the hanged men — one of whom wrote a farewell letter to his wife, quoted above, that served as a searing indictment of vigilantism — were innocent.
The powerful movie sends a message: Justice for one should not come at the cost of justice for another.
Last week in the trial of George Zimmerman, accused in the death of Trayvon Martin, the jury reached a difficult decision. I believe in the jury system. Having sat on a jury in a vehicular manslaughter case, I know the decision was not made easily.
However, in view of the charges, the Zimmerman jury’s decision was the right one, supported by the evidence — or more accurately, a lack thereof.
Followers of the Zimmerman/Martin saga are strongly divided. One side firmly believing that Trayvon was an innocent child walking home when profiled by a brutal vigilante and gunned down. The other side believes, just as strongly, that the 17-year-old Trayvon was a thug wannabe, a fighter, drug user and petty thief who jumped a neighborhood watch volunteer and was killed when that volunteer defended himself.
As is often the case, the truth lies between those views.
Reviewing the evidence would serve no purpose, as neither side will be swayed. What needs to happen is to not allow the system to again be ginned up by those beating the drums of vengeance.
President Obama originally beat the drums of guilt: “It is absolutely imperative that we investigate every aspect of this and that everybody pulls together, federal, state and local, to figure out how this tragedy happened. You know, if I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.”
The last phrase, particularly poorly chosen, cast doubt as to the president’s real intentions. The reasonable call for cooperation was a false plea, as the president’s actions later proved.
This case deserved to be investigated by local authorities, but Attorney General Eric Holder stepped in with the Justice Department’s Community Relations Services department under the guise of “peacemakers” and “mediators.” By setting up meetings with various factions, the CRS then exerted pressure on the local authorities.
The police chief of Sanford, Fla., Bill Lee, refused to file charges against Zimmerman based on the evidence. The resulting outcry from local citizens, inflamed by race baiters like Al Sharpton, Malik Shabazz and Jesse Jackson, forced Lee from office.
“They (the CRS) were there for us,” stated Rev. Valerie Houston of the Allen Chapel AME Church, who was demanding that Zimmerman be charged.
The case was taken over by the state special prosecutor, who bypassed the grand jury, going straight for Zimmerman’s throat with a second-degree murder charge.
They overstepped and fell flat on their face.
Following the verdict, the president — using words that echo the wrongly condemned Don Martin’s letter to his wife — appropriately changed his tune by calling for calm:
“I know this case has elicited strong passions. And in the wake of the verdict, I know those passions may be running even higher. But we are a nation of laws, and a jury has spoken.”
Others are seeking vengeance, not as direct as occurred at Oxbow, but vengeance nonetheless:
“We are outraged and heartbroken over today’s verdict. We will pursue civil rights charges with the Department of Justice,” NAACP President Benjamin Jealous said.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid echoed those thoughts: “I think the Justice Department is going to take a look at this. This isn’t over with and I think that’s good.”
The first victim in this case is Trayvon Martin. His death is a tragedy that should never befall any young man or those who love him. I can think of nothing worse than for a parent to bury their young son or daughter.
However, the man who killed Trayvon was tried and acquitted based on the best available evidence.
Yet there are those who now seek frontier justice, including Marion Barry, the disgraced — then disgracefully re-elected — “mayor for life” of Washington, D.C., who said:
“The good news is that Zimmerman will never be in peace. He won’t be able to get a job. He’ll have to go underground, travel incognito, and never live in peace. That’s the good news for me.”
Unfortunately, Barry, Harry Reid, Benjamin Jealous and others who are encouraging further DOJ investigations are flaming division, while not listening to the president:
“I now ask every American to respect the call for calm reflection from two parents who lost their young son.”
The president previously made statements for public consumption while taking or allowing conflicting actions. Future decisions made by the DOJ will indicate if this is, once again, the case.
The best way for the healing to begin for those “outraged and heartbroken” is to recognize what Don Martin said in his letter to his wife:
“There can’t be any such thing as civilization … unless people have a conscience …”
To demand that Zimmerman again be brought before a court to face further legal action for the same offense crosses the line from serving justice to serving unconscionable vengeance.
Dennis Lund is a mechanical engineer who lived in Benicia for more than 20 years.