The aftermath of the George Zimmerman trial left many feeling confused and unsettled. Adding to the emotion was some lingering misinformation related to the tragic shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin that says more about our culture than it does about the people involved in the case.
Photos mistakenly identified as the slain teen have circulated widely this month, and not for the first time. One making the rounds is actually of a rap artist in his 30s; another is of a teen with a similar name. The claim attached to these and other fake photos purportedly of Martin online suggest that the media suppressed the truth and that the public, who only got to see the sweet, smiling (actual) photo of Martin, was misled.
The photos came also amid stories scrutinizing his school record and his character and the releasing of new photos that indeed were of the teen — as though what’s fairest to question is the boy whose life was cut short, rather than the events of the night a man shot him.
A lot is in dispute about that February night but not that an unarmed high school student wound up dead. Maybe people seeking radically different images to identify with this tragedy are trying to make sense of that fact, and some have since apologized for spreading bad information.
Regardless, the underlying premise is that a victim who looks different than the first images the public had of Trayvon Martin deserves less sympathy. Yet if a child victim looked tougher or had a record of having made mistakes, the death is no less tragic. It doesn’t give the rest of us a pass on figuring out what to do about it.
No matter the precise circumstances of that night—no matter what Trayvon Martin wore or his size or his school record or what he looked like — we should collectively grieve and seek opportunities to keep something like this from happening again.
Was Trayvon Martin a model teen, a troubled kid or, as most of us were, somewhere in between? The question gets raised as if it matters. But children mess up, and teens are hard-wired to rebel. Whichever Trayvon Martin died that night, we all lost in having had his life and potential cut short. So the more appropriate question to ask now is: Are we building safe communities for all our youth?
Moving forward requires naked honesty. Research shows we fear what is different, often without our even being conscious of it. Social science has borne proof time and again of the base instincts at work behind impulses that lead people away from seeing one another fully.
But even if it is a common human experience, this should not be a common value. When an unarmed child dies, that in itself is all we need to know to call it a tragedy. We should not allow ourselves to vilify a young victim and should recognize that when we do, we are trying to make right something that isn’t.
We can embrace each loss as our own and admit that when a teen dies violently, it represents a clear marker that something went terribly wrong, and that something needs fixing.
It appears that Trayvon Martin’s shooting ended the life of a developing young man—much loved, imperfect and accomplished. Had he been less lovable, his smile less charming, his grades less impressive, it would still be incumbent on us to build a society where we respond with open hearts and resolve to prevent deaths like his in the future.
As things stand, the unarmed boy killed that night was indeed the same one in pictures with a sparkling smile. And a jury indeed found his shooter not guilty of a crime.
Where that leads us next as Americans is not clear, but what is certain is that doing nothing only resigns us to more confrontations that start with a misunderstanding and end up in tragedy.
Garcia is CEO of Texans Care for Children.