Existential Threats and Trayvon Martin: The bumper sticker politics of fear.

The first season of the Trayvon Martin reality show is finally over. George Zimmerman is behind bars 45 days after the shooting of an unarmed African American teen-ager which snowballed into a national soul searching crisis as to whether Americans are closet racists.

Activists, celebrities and ordinary citizens stepped up to express their outrage and demand justice. Tweets from Justine Beiber and Spike Lee along with thousands of irate phone calls flooded the airwaves; and civil rights politicians like Reverend Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson came out to denounce the act as an egregious example of racial hate crime.  The Rainbow Push coalition held hands, singing “We Shall Overcome” and the “Million Hoodie March” rallied in cities across America.   In a short period of time, over 2 million signatures petitioned for the arrest of George Zimmerman who continued to invoke self-defense under the “Stand-Your-Ground” law, which expands the rights of citizens to use deadly force in any public space if they feel threatened – albeit by a small framed, unarmed, skittles chewing minor like Trayvon.

The law which has been promoted by the National Rifle Association and Republican politicians have now been passed in 25 States and since its enactment in 2005, “justifiable” murders have increased several fold – 36 in Florida, up from 12 just 5 years ago.  Had the other 24 been literally getting away with murder before the law, or are we getting jumpier as a nation?

Mayor Bloomberg says it is clear that the law has undermined the integrity of the justice system, made the country less safe, and that it is promoting a culture of impunity.  Others call it “kill at will” or “shoot first”.   The national debate is curiously timely considering the broader global context.

In the past ten years, since the attacks on the twin towers, the U.S. has been increasingly basing its foreign policy narrative on the concept of preventive and pre-emptive attacks.  Dick Cheney even went so far as to make a case for action with as little as one percent probability of a threat clearly ruling out leaving his house in case of encounter with a discarded banana peel – a fear many of us wish he had heeded. Over the course of the past decade what started as a deadly attack by a handful of non-state loosely aligned actors in New York City, has lead to the invasion of several countries, the death of hundreds of thousand, and the displacement of millions in the Middle East and beyond as America consistently “stood its ground”.

George Bush rightly stressed his war on terror was not anti-muslim; no more than the Trayvon Martin case is anti black.  Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen and the proxy wars we wage in the horn of Africa and beyond are not about hate as much as they are about fear — fear that continues to get packaged and sold for political and economic gain by an increasingly violent America which uses violence as its principal currency as sure as it does its greenback.  We use violence as currency for entertainment, casually feeding it to our children in ever more brutal video games and demanding more of it in our movies — more than our European counterparts who seem to prefer sex – thanks to their Mediterranean DNA; and we use it as the prime currency to define ourselves as individuals whether at home, in our neighborhoods; or on the world stage by “standing our ground”, resolute and uncompromising no matter how asymmetric, intransigent and one sided our demands.

We nurture violence through the exploitation of fear by the right wing with links to a multi billion dollar arms industry which brings jobs to constituents who fund their Washington representatives to preserve their livelihoods; by the political machinery where each side postures as the more patriotic by being hardest on crime – hardest on terrorism; and mostly we nurture fear and violence by a disconnected public who gladly consumes the messages of a lazy and complicit media who mostly amplifies the conventional narrative of power without trying to reframe the conversation.

The Iraqi WMD wild goose chase quickly became “support our troops”; a multi billion dollar military expansion across the globe was sold as “peace through strength”; and the “war on terror” became the catch all phrase for the pursuit of all things evil by our heroic forces whose patriotism bars them from asking why.

The result is a polarized world with a clear “us” versus “them” narrative framed by fear, resolved through force. As the Trayvon Martin story plays itself on an endless loop on national channels, another round of “negotiations” to stop Iran from enriching uranium is taking place so that we may get over the election hump before bombing yet another country. Who knew election season could be so hazardous to your health.

As others more astute than myself have observed, and Mark Twain’s powerful reminder we choose to ignore, the rhetoric rhymes alarmingly with the argument for the Iraqi invasion – the mushroom cloud was it?  It is ironic how asymmetric “strength” can in fact lead to conflict rather than peace.  Even more ironic that the citizens of the strongest, most powerful country should be so ruled by fear that they should seek to eradicate even the smallest, most minute possibility of harm to the point that they would be scared out of their wits by a hoodie, or see a country with no evidence of a weapons program an existential threat to themselves and their ally who, between them, own over 8,000 nuclear warheads.

Barack Obama has successfully fended off an Israeli attack for the moment even as he embarks on non-starter negotiations, demanding the unreasonable even as he ratchets up “crippling sanctions” against 70 million Iranians.  Israel for its part is preparing for a strike by securing bases in Azerbaijan and unleashing AIPAC on the U.S. congress.

Following the tsunami of outrage against the injustice in the Trayvon Martin case, Mr. Obama finally broke his silence and offered this measured response:  “If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon Martin.”

Mr. president, in this election season as you walk the fine line between your Nobel Peace Prize and your second term, consider seeing beyond color – beyond borders, to see every child, every where, as your own.