Column
August 10, 2016

The ethics of punching people

It was reported last week that George Zimmerman, the infamous neighborhood watch coordinator who was acquitted of second-degree murder in 2013, was punched in the face inside a bar in Sanford, Fla, after bragging about the 2012 incident in which he shot and killed the unarmed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. Zimmerman was not badly hurt in the scuffle, but he was shaken up enough to call 911.
On the Internet, people didn’t seem terribly upset to hear about Zimmerman’s traumatic evening. Should they have been?
Regardless of one’s views on the legality of George Zimmerman’s behavior on the night of Martin’s death, it seems quite clear that Zimmerman is one of the absolute worst human beings on earth. Whether or not Zimmerman acted in self-defense in his encounter with Martin, the boy’s death was a tragedy—nothing that anyone should have felt good about—yet since the end of the trial, Zimmerman has consistently gloated on Twitter and elsewhere, referring to the deceased child as a “moron” and later posting a photo of Martin’s corpse with a self-congratulatory caption. He even auctioned off the gun used in the killing as if it were a piece of memorabilia associated with some glorious event in American history. Women have accused Zimmerman on several occasions of domestic violence, and he has, on record, referred to black people as “slime” and has called President Obama a “baboon.”
Still, although I personally believe that Zimmerman should have been sent to prison in 2013, I would never have endorsed a punishment for him that would have included any form of physical torture or beating. While serious crimes must be severely punished, civilized people have agreed that even the most repulsive wrongdoers must be punished humanely, not with violence. Brutality is never the correct response. I’m on board with this.
The man who recently punched George Zimmerman in the face committed a crime. It was an assault. By all accounts, George Zimmerman had neither threatened nor endangered anyone at Gators Riverside Grille, the restaurant where, visibly basking in the infamy that he so enjoys, Zimmerman attracted the ire of the unknown avenger. Again, civilized people agree that we cannot go around punching each other in the face, even if we dislike each other very much. I’m on board with this, too. I have never been in a fight in my adult life.
So the difficulty here lies, I think, in identifying the particular subclause in my ethical code that allows nevertheless for punching George Zimmerman in the face—because this attack strikes me as it does most people, as a small but indisputable act of fairness and uprightness. Like any reasonable person, I strongly believe that no conflict should be resolved with violence—that, moreover, vigilantism is wrong, and that an impartial justice system, not lone self-appointed individuals, must be responsible for doling out society’s penalties for misconduct. This is fairly basic stuff, yet if George Zimmerman’s assailant were caught, and if I were his judge, I know I wouldn’t be able to punish him.
Am I a hypocrite? The particular punch that hit George Zimmerman’s face feels karmic, not criminal—the natural and unavoidable response of the universe to that level of terribleness, embodied in the fist of some random guy at a bar in Florida. One simply can’t go around being so awful and expect not to be punched in the face, and wouldn’t it be wrong of us to condemn the man who happened to become the instrument of the cosmic energy that demanded that George Zimmerman be punched?
What happened was not “justice”—justice doesn’t happen so organically. On the other hand, bar fights in which obnoxious racists get their lips bloodied . . . these belong to the trivial, reassuring currents of human life, in which the feral force of decency, like anything else, will occasionally press down: it’s the stuff that just happens, existing somewhere below the lofty dictates of morality. We can’t do much about it, and in this case, I’m not so sure we need to try.

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