How they see us: A racist nation of vigilantes

To Europeans, George Zimmerman’s not guilty verdict is “not just troubling, but a travesty.”

To Europeans, George Zimmerman’s not guilty verdict is “not just troubling, but a travesty,” said The Independent(U.K.) in an editorial. The facts were clear: Trayvon Martin was “an unarmed juvenile who was killed by an armed vigilante,” and the vigilante got off scot-free. Why? Because Martin was black and Zimmerman was not. That’s not the whole story, of course, but it’s the crux of it. There may be a black president, but in America, “racism remains pernicious and entrenched.” In fact, it worsened after Barack Obama was elected, said Justin Webb in The Times (U.K.). Europeans rejoiced in 2008, but in the American South, “they spat out their chewing tobacco, cranked up the pickup truck, and headed into town to get in line for ammo.”

American racism is obvious to the most casual foreign observer, said David Hesse in the Tages-Anzeiger (Switzerland). Everywhere you go, you see “classrooms, restaurants, even entire neighborhoods where everyone is the same race.” Recently, a maker of breakfast cereal was deluged with hate mail after running a commercial that dared to show a happy interracial family. Now, young black men have been put on notice that they can be executed for walking down the street “in any area where they aren’t personally known to every last paranoiac.” In Florida, the same state that let Zimmerman walk free, an African-American woman was just jailed for 20 years for firing a warning shot into the air to scare off her abusive ex-husband. The conclusion is unavoidable: Blacks with guns go to jail; whites with guns get away with murder.

Focusing only on race in this case, though, obscures a deeper truth about American vigilante culture, said Nicolas Richter in the Süddeutsche Zeitung (Germany). The U.S. loves its ideal of the armed cowboy, doling out rough justice. In towns across the country, “neighborhood watch” brigades of citizens, many of them armed, go on patrol to play at being police. Now we see what it leads to: Amateurs—armed with guns “and wild suspicions”—end up “spreading the very insecurity that they were trying to curb.” Will this tragic case finally teach Americans that “vigilantism leads only to chaos”? On the contrary, said Christian Burmeister in the Berliner Kurier (Germany). Vigilantes “in the increasingly common local militias” will be more emboldened than ever to take action. “Motto: Shoot first, ask questions later. If things go south, nothing will happen to you.”

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What the case has taught Americans is that their justice system is unjust, said Carole Bouillé in L’Union (France). Black Americans already knew that, but now many white ones do too. “A malaise has entered the American consciousness.” Justice and civil rights were supposed to be the twin pillars of the social contract. But few Americans have any illusion what verdict would have come down had the races been reversed. Doubt has intruded. “Even more than anger, you can now see disillusionment in Americans’ eyes.”

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