Why vigilantes make lousy cops

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Ken Trainor

When I heard about George Zimmerman killing Trayvon Martin in Florida, I thought about the 1992 Clint Eastwood film, Unforgiven. I wondered if Zimmerman had ever killed a man before. I wondered how he was feeling about it.

"It's a hell of a thing, killing a man," says Eastwood's character, Will Munny, who has killed more than his share. "You take away all he's got and all he's ever gonna have."

The Schofield Kid (after killing someone for the first time) had just finished telling Munny, "It don't seem real ... how he ain't gonna never breathe again, ever ... how he's dead. All on account of pulling a trigger."

Right now, I suspect George Zimmerman would agree. It's a hell of a thing, killing a man.

But he "stood his ground."

Whatever comes of this case, of one thing we can be fairly certain: Mr. Zimmerman may think twice before he goes hunting "bad guys" again.

Zimmerman, it's probably safe to assume, thinks of himself as one of the "good guys." That's the problem with vigilantes - that righteous certainty.

Florida's self-defense law encourages gunslingers to "Stand Your Ground." The name of the law is a dead (so to speak) giveaway. It's all about machismo, defiance, fighting back (pre-emptively if necessary) against all the "bad guys" out there, real and imagined.

When I'm out walking at night, I know I'm innocent, that I'm not acting "suspicious," but I'm not the one defining that, am I? The guy concealing and carrying a loaded gun is defining it. If I make a "wrong" move, if I'm in the wrong place at the wrong time, I could be shot, maybe killed.

Whatever else we learn about this case, one thing seems pretty clear: Zimmerman was the protagonist. He initiated the contact.

By the time he ended it, was his life in danger? Or was he merely in danger of getting a sound thrashing? There's a difference, but a guy with a gun is not likely to make such fine distinctions.

Might this kid have been a hothead (or just having a bad night) who retaliated when confronted? If he did, was Zimmerman justified in shooting him?

Did Zimmerman show his gun first or did he conceal it until he fired? If he showed the gun, did Martin grab for it? If he did, was it because he was trying to wrestle it away in order to kill Zimmerman or was he desperately trying to save his own life? At what point in such an altercation does "stand your ground" shift over to protecting Trayvon Martin? Would he have been justified in killing Zimmerman if he ended up with the gun? After all, his life, we now know, was clearly threatened.

Maybe he would have been more merciful with Zimmerman than Zimmerman was with him.

We'll never know for sure. Lack of witnesses makes this a "he said/he said" incident. Oops, I forgot. One of the "he"s is dead. It's now down to a "he said" case. Very convenient for Mr. Zimmerman.

This incident reminds us, as if we needed a reminder, that vigilantes make lousy cops. I guess the Bernard Goetz lesson has worn off. Was Zimmerman inspired in his pre-emptive law enforcement efforts by the Bush administration's pre-emptive invasion of Iraq (international vigilantism)? Were the two revenge-seekers in Tulsa, Okla. encouraged by the "stand your ground" laws in more than 20 states?

Creating a climate, it seems, has consequences, many of them unintended. If you have a gun and permission to use it, you're not necessarily going to wait for the other guy to possibly shoot first. Too risky. Safer to ask questions later.

But Mr. Zimmerman might think twice the next time.

Maybe he'll think about the film Body Heat, where Mickey Rourke, playing a two-bit criminal, reminds William Hurt's character about some advice he once received: "In any crime, there are at least 50 ways it can go wrong. If you're a genius, you can maybe anticipate 20. And you ain't no genius."

There are a lot of vigilante wanna-bes out there who either applaud George Zimmerman or think they could have avoided whatever mistakes he might have made. But vigilantism is a lot like committing a crime. As Zimmerman now knows, there are plenty of ways it can go wrong.

But maybe others think they could do better. They can tell the difference between a bad guy and a scared kid in the dark. They'll only shoot if their life is truly threatened. After all, they're the "good guys." I can't tell you how reassuring that is for the rest of us - because it's not.

Vigilantes make lousy cops because they have an ax to grind - or they wouldn't resort to being vigilantes in the first place. Their judgment is questionable, and reality just isn't as clear-cut as it is in all those "righteous revenge" action flicks that thrill them so. Life isn't so black and white - well, maybe in this case, though not the way Zimmerman figured.

A nationwide movement has begun to repeal these vigilante laws, and that's a bandwagon Oak Park should be jumping on. If it happens, Neighborhood Watch volunteer George Zimmerman may get his wish at last: Making all of us safer - from people like himself.

And if Trayvon Martin turns out to be the guilty party? It's still a hell of a thing to kill a man.

In Unforgiven, the Schofield Kid says, "Yeah, well, I guess they had it comin'."

To which the Clint Eastwood character replies, "We all got it comin', kid."

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