Tragedy in Trayvon Martin’s death and in our national discourse

The vehement national debate over the shooting of Trayvon Martin is about as strong of proof as you can find that it isn’t just the American political process that is dysfunctional these days — our entire social discourse is a distorted, contorted, discombobulated mess.

If we are still the greatest nation on the planet, you sure couldn’t tell it by the way we behave on the 5 o’clock news.

Simple, stereotypical storylines overwhelmingly dominate our discourse, while the nuance, the gray areas and the circumstantial phenomena that define the interaction of imperfect social creatures in this complex thing called human life are shunted out of the way, as if irrelevant to our collective understanding of complicated situations like the death of Martin.

Is common sense dead? Is social compromise impossible? Can we not agree on anything anymore?

The case of Trayvon Martin doesn’t inspire a lot of hope.

On one side, we have seen a knee-jerk rush to the defense of George Zimmerman from many commentators on the right. Given the uncertainty of the facts, I cannot understand for the life of me why so many so viscerally defend Zimmerman while so easily brushing aside the tragedy that Martin’s death represents.

Their argument usually starts off something like: “Trayvon Martin’s death was a tragedy, but ...” Their entire approach to the discussion is callous on top of callous, as if the underlying situation — the death of a 17 year-old boy — isn’t horrible on top of horrible. The lack of empathy from these is conspicuous and appalling.

Aren’t conservatives supposed to be pro-life? Seriously, even if you stipulate to Zimmerman’s story, doesn’t the death of young man like Martin take your breath away?

The whole “Trayvon Martin’s death was a tragedy, but ...” routine is infuriating to me. And the attempt to character assassinate the young man after his death is even worse. The alleged juvenile delinquency of a 17-year old doesn’t make that 17-year old a candidate for being gunned down in the street.

I’m a parent, and as I see the agony on the face of Martin’s parents and I can’t help but feel horrible sorrow. Every time. That sentiment is rarely — OK, almost never —  emotionally articulated by Zimmerman’s sympathizers. Why?

Of course, Zimmerman, like all the rest of us, has a God-given right to defend himself. And in fairness to many of my friends on the right, the underlying political proxy war they are fighting is not about race. Pro-Zimmerman commentators, one can easily surmise, view the debate as a proxy fight about the right of all people to defend themselves, importantly, with a gun.

But the right of self-defense does not invalidate the equally compelling imperatives of proportionality. I got my butt kicked once, but that didn’t give me the right to chase down the culprit and shoot him.

The full portfolio of facts are still not known, but enough is known to say this is not a clear-cut case where one person, immediately fearing for his own life, took the life of another. And that’s why the reflexive defense of Zimmerman baffles and infuriates.

Those who defend Zimmerman do not have a corner on the market of indefensible rhetoric. The other side has been as bad or worse.

Al Sharpton triggers the gag reflex. Get a grip Sharpton. There wasn’t a day this fall and winter when I didn’t send my 10-year-old blonde-haired, blue-eyed son to school in a hoodie. And there are about 50 million parents of all colors and creeds who did the same.

The New York Times’ race-hustling coverage — casting Zimmerman as a “white-Hispanic” — as if that is an actual racial demographic and as if racial demography adds to or subtracts from any part of this tragedy — has been quintessentially New York Times terrible.

And President Barack Obama’s gratuitous politicization of the whole sordid affair was reckless. Instead of bringing Americans together as advertised, Obama views social conflict such as the Martin tragedy as a tool to manipulate voter performance.

All of which points to just how erratic and irrational our social discourse has become. Martin’s death, a horrible tragedy unto itself, speaks to the grim and equally tragic fact that we are a nation that cannot even have a difficult conversation with itself.

Proportionality was nowhere to be found on that Florida street, and it is just as obviously missing in our collective, national dialogue.

Josh Penry is a former minority leader of the Colorado Senate. He graduated from Grand Junction High School and Mesa State College.


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Kudos, Josh for taking on those on the right over this dialogue. This may be the first column that you have written with which I mostly agree. The operative word is mostly. If it weren’t for Al Sharpton there never would have been any arrest in this case.

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