It's easier for me to identify with Trayvon Martin than George Zimmerman. As a teenager, I discovered what it was like to be hassled by a strange community's Neighborhood Watch, whose members once profiled me and my beat-up car with the Grateful Dead stickers parked on their leafy street after dark. (I was lost and had pulled over to look at a map.) And as an adult with some libertarian tendencies, I've bumped heads a time or two with self-appointed (and self-important) do-gooders and homeowners association types with way too much time on their hands.
Meanwhile, I can safely say I would never have done what George Zimmerman did. This isn't because I'm better than him. It's because I don't care as much about my community as he seems to. And so I basically mind my own business. I nod to the neighbors as I go into my house, flip on the TV, and that's about that. In theory, I believe in communitarianism. But in practice, I'm much closer to being an individualist. I'm a great neighbor to have, unless, that is, someone is robbing your house. (In that case, I will assume that it's a friend of yours who is helping you move while you're on vacation.)
But here's the thing. In a sense, George Zimmerman was — at least up until the moments surrounding that fateful shot — arguably doing what we tell responsible citizens to do: Care about your community, and take personal responsibility for the betterment of it.
To be sure, he was overzealous. It's one thing to call the police, and another to get out of your car and engage in a confrontation, especially when you have a gun with you. But we always say things like, "This is your community” and "You are responsible for it." Do we really mean it?
Zimmerman's neighborhood had experienced a rash of burglaries and break-ins. He chose to head up a neighborhood watch group. I would probably have gotten a better security system. Or moved. But that sort of voting with your feet is cowardly and escapist.
At some point, we outsourced caring to the police and the government, and in so doing, abdicated our own responsibility. At most, you are supposed to call the police (which Zimmerman did), but that's not exactly a heroic way to go about life. Is snitching the extent of our neighborly duties?
This isn't so much about the details of the Zimmerman case as it is what the case will teach us. These big events are morality plays, and they unconsciously send signals. Some issues, like racial profiling, are obvious conversation starters. Others are less obvious. And I think that one of the lessons that will be taken away from this is to mind your own business. That's not a particularly healthy message to send.
This is an obvious takeaway from the case: Your life will be a whole lot easier if you retreat inward. Don't worry about the community.
Of course, this speaks to a larger societal trend. Community bonds have frayed over time. People used to get together to play cards, join fraternal orders and civic associations, and socialize with the neighbors. This was good and bad. It also meant nosy neighbors, less privacy, and more gossip. But if something happened in the neighborhood, somebody would step in. If some kids (race here is irrelevant) were playing loud music, some old guy would tell them to shut the hell up.
It's easy to be nostalgic about this. Again, there were good and bad things associated with this. And there is much to be said for the anonymity (never mind opportunity) of modern city life. But there is also something lost. We are all bowling alone.
I do not pretend this little debate over social malaise and the loss of social capital is the most obvious — or most important — issue this case has brought to the forefront. Parents who lost a child would understandably find such a discussion academic. But I do think it is worth discussing, for the fear is that it leads to an institutional "Genovese syndrome" where we become a nation of individualist bystanders, bemoaning the problems, but knowing all too well that it's much smarter to pull the blinds, flip on The Big Bang Theory, and mind our own damn business.