This is not telecom. But for the reasons I explain below, I have been struggling for days with the twin tragedies of the killing of Trayvon Martin and the killing of three Jewish children, a Rabbi, and three French soldiers in Toulouse. For me, they are inextricably linked.
Both the tragedy of Toulouse and the tragedy of Trayvon Martin flow from the fact that bias blinds us to the individual before us. Merah saw his victims not as French children who were Jewish at school but as generic “Jews” to be held accountable for what other generic “Jews” had done in some other part of the world, and thus teach all generic “Jews” a lesson. Because for Merah, Jews were not actual individual people but some collective group utterly unlike him and the narrow circle of like-minded people he decided were actual people. It did not matter that they shared many commonalities with him. It did not matter that they were French, they lived in Toulouse, and shared the same everyday culture. In Merah’s eyes, they were Jews and therefore belonging to some other, foreign tribe, not quite human and to be held collectively accountable for the actions of other generic Jews they had never even met.
Merah made the same calculation for the 3 French soldiers of African descent he murdered. He could have seen them as fellow Frenchmen, or even as fellow Africans. But he saw them as generic symbols of a Western military with whom he considered himself at war.
Where is the link to George Zimmerman half a world a way? Like Merah, he did not see a person in front of him. He saw a generic “young black man in a hoodie.” The same power of bias that transformed children at play in a French school into generic Jews responsible for the actions of any other generic Jew anywhere transformed a harmless young man walking home from the 7-11 into a generic caricature — a suspicious creature imbued with all the negative stereotypes of our popular culture. No doubt Zimmerman genuinely believed he was ferreting out a suspicious character, and no doubt genuinely felt in fear of his life. It is not the sincerity of Zimmerman’s belief that it is at issue. To the contrary, it is precisely their strength and sincerity that should so deeply trouble us. Would the same actions have seemed so suspicious and threatening to the self-appointed captain of the neighborhood watch had it not so neatly fit the little cubbyhole our culture has created for the “black teenage thug in hoodie?”
Trayvon Martin was unarmed, yet he was shot in the chest. What possible circumstances could inspire Zimmerman to believe that he needed to use deadly force in such a case? The fact that Zimmerman did not see himself as confronting a young man going about his business, but a generic “black teenage thug in a hoodie,” a wild and dangerous beast against whom only lethal force can hope to win the day. Zimmerman, like Merah, could have seen a young man similar to himself in many ways, a real person whose life had barely begun. Instead he saw an alien threat, a generic “black teenage thug in hoodie” whose every movement — no matter how benign in another — therefore screamed menace to Zimmerman.
Mr. Zimmerman’s father has written a letter defending his son as having black friends and not being a racist. I expect this is so. These are people Mr. Zimmerman has met, he knows them as people. Had he seen one of them walking back from the 7-11 in a hoodie, he would have recognized a friend and waved. But in the absence of such evidence, Trayvon Martin defaulted from “teenager walking home” to “black thug in hoodie.”
I will confess I am as guilty empathizing more with people as obviously like me, as the Jews of Toulouse. But it is equally true for Trayvon Martin because I have a teenage son. When I hear people chanting “Trayvon Martin is my son,” I feel it more than I would have 15 years ago because I have a teenage boy. When I kiss Aaron goodbye in the morning, I keep wondering if some madman will see him not as my beautiful, loving, smart, goodhearted wonderful treasure with a whole life ahead of him but as a generic “Jew” to be killed. When I see Trayvon’s father struggling with his tears and the loss of his beautiful son, it tears my heart because I know how devastating it would be for me to hear that Aaron was shot by someone in “revenge” for events he never committed. As Eva Sandler, whose husband and two of her children were shot down by Merah, wrote in an open letter “Parents, please kiss your children. Tell them how much you love them, and how dear it is to your heart that they be living examples of our Torah, imbued with the fear of Heaven and with love of their fellow man.”
Trayvon Martin is my son. He is all our sons. The victims of Toulouse were our sons and daughters. They were all victims of the same bias that allows someone to see not a unique human being but a generic dehumanized stereotype. Let us therefore open our hearts to the sentiment expressed most famously and eloquently by John Donne four centuries ago, and modify his famous concluding lines just slightly. “Therefore, send not to know for whose son the Bell tolls. It tolls for yours.”