Stand your ground laws and Lord of the Flies in the era of Trump
Many of us were recently shocked with a video showing a two men arguing. When the one pushed the other to the ground, the one on the ground pulled out a gun and shot the other. The shot man died in front of his 5-year old son and his girlfriend sitting in the car, who he was defending when he pushed the other man. It is especially shocking to note that the now dead man actually appeared to step back from the fight when the other shot him, perhaps hoping to deescalate things at that point. It is even more shocking that the shooter will face no charges.
The reason for the decision not to prosecute was Florida’s “Stand your ground” law which does not require people to try to avoid confrontation, as past law mandated. Instead, it allows people to simply shoot each other if they feel, for any reason, threatened.
The video reminded many of us of the recent trial of George Zimmerman, acquitted for killing Trayvon Martin in 2012. This was especially true given the fact that in the recent video, the shooter was white and the unarmed dead man was black. Indeed, it was Zimmerman’s trial that first brought to the national attention the stand your ground law. Zimmerman’s acquittal, however, was based more upon a self-defense argument by his counsel. In this recent video, there was clearly no self-defense. The man pushing the other had stopped the assault and stepped back. The prosecutor’s decision was based solely upon the stand your ground law.
It is worth noting, of course, that this law was advocated for in Florida and other states by none other than the NRA. It is also worth noting recent revelations about that group demonstrating its close ties to the Russian autocracy.
Much has been said and written about the racial issues raised by the Zimmerman case, and I assume these arguments will come up again — and rightfully so — as a result of this video. Here, however, I want to make a different point.
I was especially struck by this concern after having recently watched the History Channel’s “Vikings.” In that show, we see a society in which might makes right, the powerful rule, and there is no respect for the rights of those without power. It is a world where the rich get richer, the powerful get more so, and there is no room for outcasts. If you don’t fit in, you are literally sentenced to death by being pushed out of organized society into the harsh wilderness of Scandinavia.
This type of society was rejected first in folklore in the story of King Arthur and the round table, later by philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau whose “social contract” philosophy was deeply impactful upon our Founding Fathers. Indeed, our Constitution is framed as a contract between all the people, starting with the words “We the people…”
The idea behind the social contract is that when the powerful cede some of their power to society as a whole and thus allowing protections for the weaker, they benefit from a civil society with less violence and more opportunities for prosperity. This guiding principle, sometimes referred to as “a nation of laws,” has worked very well for the United States, being largely responsible for our growth into far and away the most prosperous and powerful country in the history of the world.
What many of the rich and powerful in America have forgotten, however, is why they ceded some of their power to society. They live in gated communities and enjoy international lives jetting from one country to another. They benefit little from public services because they send their children to private schools and they are protected by private security.
This loss of connection to our basic social contract is embodied in the Trump presidency. His attack on regulations aimed at protecting the environment and consumers speaks to the fact that the very rich believe there should be no societal limitations on their ability to exploit the environment and consumers. Laws such as stand your ground point to the fact that Trump and his supporters believe aggrieved people should not patiently wait for the state to resolve the problem through its justice system, but that people should just be able to shoot others who bother them. The push for tax cuts for the wealthy demonstrates that the rich feel no obligation to support civil society as a whole.
This descent into chaos is exactly what William Golding warned us about in his novel Lord of the Flies. Where the boys on the island at first worked together to create a civil society, the stronger boys realized they could get more if they instead dominated the others. The strong boys may have gained individual benefits, but they lost the overall benefits of a society that values and protects everyone.
This is exactly what our Founding Fathers sought to avoid when they drafted the Constitution. It is also what Trump and his supporters seek to undo. We must hope that society overall — including many of the rich and powerful — decide saving a civil society is important enough that we can stop them in that effort.