George Zimmerman, Pseudo Free Thought, and Mob Justice

I have no brief for George Zimmerman. I think he acted like an idiot the night he killed Trayvon Martin–an adrenaline pumped wannabe cop; just the kind of guy who would have wanted a brown shirt and jackboots in the 1930s.

A little hyperbolic? Yes, but at least I’ll allow you to disagree with me. Not so over at Greta Christina’s “freethought” blog, where free thought “does not fracking well mean” you can disagree that Trayvon Martin was “hunted down and shot,” or that Zimmerman’s acquittal was anything but a “a grotesque travesty of justice.”

If you have anything at all to say about this that even remotely hints at implying that what George Zimmerman did was remotely defensible, or that this verdict was anything short of grotesque… do not comment in my blog. Now, or ever. Do not read my blog. Do not follow me on Facebook or Twitter. Do not attend my talks. Do not buy my books. Get the fuck out of my life, now. Thank you.

You’re welcome. Not that I ever did comment on your blog, or read it before this one time, or even have a Facebook account or understand why anybody would bother to follow anyone on Twitter, or attend any of your talks that I didn’t know about, or buy any of your books that I’ve never heard of, but I’m more than happy to continue not doing any of that. But really now, “free” thought means think as I do or get the fuck out of my life?

I think Zimmerman bears some moral responsibility in Martin’s death, but I think it’s possible Martin does also. The problem we have–the same problem I think the jury had–is that we just don’t know what happened immediately before Zimmerman shot Martin. Did Martin attack Zimmerman first, as some believe based on Zimmerman’s injuries? Or did Zimmerman try to grab Martin and end up getting the worst of what he started? We’ll never know, and the jury damn well didn’t know. So there’s reasonable doubt about whether Zimmerman actually committed an act in violation of the law, and we can’t convict someone based just on the belief–a belief I share–that he bears (at least shares) moral responsibility. As former president Jimmy Carter pointed out, “It’s not a moral question…it was a legal question.”

And that’s why I’m appalled by the petition calling on the Department of Justice to investigate Zimmerman for violating Martin’s civil rights. The jury system, for all its imperfections, is an an institutional bulwark against both authoritarian government and the lynch mob. Those who refuse to accept the verdict are calling for nothing less than a sanitized version of mob justice–thinking that by running it through government they can keep their hands clean. Or worse, thinking that justice through political pressure is true justice and not–to borrow Greta Christina’s own words–“a grotesque travesty of justice.”

Feel free to disagree with me. Unlike some who just give it lip service, I actually do believe in free thought.

[Addendum: Ken White at Popehat provides some good thoughts for free:

…I’ve been a criminal defense attorney for 13 years now, and it’s changed the way I view trials. They aren’t (or at least should not be) a vehicle for society’s judgment…

…the more I observe American culture, the less enthused I am at the notion that a jury’s verdict in a criminal case is wrong if it doesn’t reflect the collective beliefs of our society.

…People assail results like the acquittal of George Zimmerman. But critics don’t tell us what the alternative should be. Shall guilt or innocence be determined by society’s reaction to the vapid summaries of prosecutions on cable news? Clearly not. Should verdicts necessarily reflect social consensus of the time about the crime and the accused? Tell that to the Scottsboro boys — theirs did. Should we make it easier to convict people of crimes in order to reduce injustice against the weak? How foolish. The weak already suffer because it is too easy to convict…

About James Hanley

James Hanley is former Associate Professor of Political Science at Adrian College and currently an independent scholar.
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37 Responses to George Zimmerman, Pseudo Free Thought, and Mob Justice

  1. Ken says:

    I read Greta Christina’s blog, have agreed with her on many occasions, enjoy some of her work, and if memory serves have had perfectly polite exchanges with her online on a few occasions. But I will honor her request. I’ve unfollowed her on Twitter and will not visit her blog again.

  2. J@m3z Aitch says:

    If I knew it was so easy to get the awesome Ken White to comment here, I would have linked to him a long time ago. ;) I don’t comment much at Popehat, because the comment threads are so lengthy, but I greatly admire his blog.

  3. ppnl says:

    He, yes she does seem a little emotional about this. The thing is we have a justice system that very intentionally puts the burden on the government. I don’t get emotional about guilty people who go free. Especially not high profile cases. The true tragedies happen with innocent people going to prison and nobody even noticing.

    Anyway I agree that what Zimmerman did was not justified. In the best interpretation he acted stupidly and created a tragedy. But that’s not murder.

    I think federal civil rights charges have even less of a leg to stand on. A civil suit otoh may have a chance.

    As for Greta Christina’s blog I very occasionally read it and will continue to do so. Politics is the mind killer for us all.

    Anyway for your viewing pleasure….

  4. Jeremy Sell says:

    Although I once enjoyed the blogging from people like Greta Christina, PZ Myers, et al. I’ve come to realize they’re no better than some voices on the right. They and their followers shout down all opposition.. “Freethought” among some on the left has become no less Orwellian doublespeak than some of the stuff from the right (IE “Patriot Act”).

    Obviously no one knows what happened between Zimmerman and Martin on that night, but it does seem apparent Zimmerman went looking for trouble, found it, and when he got in over his head he shot someone. Since I wasn’t on the jury I have no authority here, but from what I know I suspect Zimmerman wasn’t completely without guilt. It seems that if he had been at home having dinner with his wife, watching TV, or reading a book like any other sane American, Martin would have gone on his merry way and none of this drama would have unfolded.

    Although mob justice has always made me sick, I’m also disturbed by the awareness that anyone, anytime, could unwittingly stumble upon an equally unhinged individual with a bug up his ass and a gun. And if you defend yourself, they kill you, and claim self-defense, you’re dead and they’re free to walk. The subjectiveness of “justice” is perhaps the thing I find most unnerving about our society.

  5. James K says:

    Jeremy, I’ve been avoiding PZ for a while (he gets deranged on the subject of libertarianism), but on the whole I’m a fan of Freethought Blogs. I follow Ed Brayton and Ophelia Benson’s blogs on a regular basis, and I enjoyed their online conference last weekend.

  6. Matty says:

    I’ve never read Greta’s blog but if the above is representative the comparison to PZ seems apt. I’ve always found him too black and white in his thinking, for example if moderate christians agree with him on evolution his usual response seems to be not to welcome them as allies but to criticise them for not being atheists. On the actual case I don’t feel qualified to judge but I will say that while I am skeptical jurors have any reliable way of reaching the truth I am convinced the internet commentariat does not, even if they can be right by accident.

  7. J@m3z Aitch says:

    I haven’t read Greta Christina’s blog before, and this issue is a particularly salient one, where emotions run high. So I’d hesitate to assume that post tells us about anything more than her views on that particular issue.

    As to PZ, I find him unbearable for the same reasons others here say. He, or at least his readers, impose an orthodoxy as unyielding as anything the Catholic Church ever has. If anything, more so, since serious discussion about the church’s theology has long been a staple of its character. To be fair, though, the Church of PZ has not actually burned anyone at the stake yet. Yet.

  8. pierrecorneille says:

    “So I’d hesitate to assume that post tells us about anything more than her views on that particular issue.”

    That’s roughly my take, with the same qualification as yours that I’ve read only that blog post of hers and none other.

    I also admit that I in principle accept that certain things are undiscussable, in the sense that even to treat them as legitimate topics of discussion might function to validate them, at least in certain contexts.

    Still, I don’t plan to read her blog any time soon. Her framing of what the key question is leaves too much assumed for me. However, I should admit that while I’m bothered by the whole situation, I’m not as viscerally affected by it as some people are. (I can think of other issues, most of which are more trivial in their impact on me than the Zimmerman/Martin thing is on some people, that I get emotional about very quickly.)

  9. pierrecorneille says:

    On the petition to the DOJ to investigate the applicability of civil rights prosecution (I have not read the petition, by the way), I’m of two minds, although I lean against signing it being a good thing.

    On the one hand, if the petition is calling only for the DOJ to investigate whether Zimmerman can be prosecuted for violating federal civil rights laws, then I’m not in principle against the petition (although I’m not going to sign it).

    On the other hand, I tend to think federal civil rights criminal laws ought to be for 1) a way to punish state actors for denying 14th amendment rights (or other federal rights due to state citizens) or 2) a way to get at institutionalized violence that local authorities won’t prosecute (e.g., prosecutions against the KKK). This is how I think such special prosecutions ought to work, not necessarily how the laws are right now. And I don’t think either of these two functions are implicated in the Zimmerman case, from what little I know of it.

  10. Matty says:

    OK I clicked the link, which I really should have done first, and the quoted passage in context is not a ‘how dare anyone disagree with me’ so much as an ‘I’m too emotional about this to put up with debating people I really can’t stand”. Not after all that different to your own responses when people have posted vile things about mixed race marriages.

    In particular I noticed

    I am not willing to host a debate about this on my blog. I am willing to host many debates on my blog, about many issues. I am willing to make my blog into a place for people to express many ideas and opinions with which I passionately disagree. This is not one of those issues, and this is not one of those times.

    So now I’m afraid I can’t agree that

    “free” thought means think as I do or get the fuck out of my life?

    is an accurate summary of the post.

    I also find myself agreeing with her secondary points.

    – No one writing a blog should feel an obligation to ‘host’ debates by other people whose comments they don’t wish to read
    -People who are more concerned about bad language and strident tones than the actual issue being debated really need to get a sense of proportion especially when the issue is literally life and death.

  11. pierrecorneille says:


    I think I mostly agree with you, at least based on this one blog post I (and you) have read. There are plenty of things that are discussable but that I personally am not willing to discuss.

  12. J@m3z Aitch says:

    Matty–of course bloggers have the right to choose which debates they will and won’t host. But I think GC went well beyond that. She said, “If you have anything at all to say about this that even remotely hints at implying that what George Zimmerman did was remotely defensible, or that this verdict was anything short of grotesque… Get the fuck out of my life, now.” That seems to me to be saying, “if you disagree with me on this, I not only won’t host the debate on my blog, but I will refuse to have any interaction with you, even on completely different subjects.” And notice that “get the fuck out of my life” was an exact quote of her words; I didn’t paraphrase her there.

    Pierre–I agree with most of what you wrote, but particularly with the critique of her framing of the issue. As I said, I have no brief for Zimmerman, but her claim that he “hunted down and shot” Martin suggests that he consciously set out with the intent of killing a black guy, like a deer hunter sets out with the explicit goal of shooting a deer. I don’t think there’s one bit of evidence of that. That is, I don’t think she is justified in any way in thinking that, and in her attempt to stake out the moral high ground she’s abdicated rational thought. I’d argue that Hanlon’s Razor is applicable here.

  13. ppnl says:

    But is Hanlon’s Razor applicable to the video I posted?

  14. AMW says:

    Hearing about Freethought blog always brings a smile to my face. It makes me think of the hilarious flamewars of “Elevatorgate” and Thunderf00t’s* brief tenure there. There’s nothing funnier than internecine assholery.

    *A popular atheist scientist on YouTube

  15. J@m3z Aitch says:

    But is Hanlon’s Razor applicable to the video I posted?

    That depends on whether it can adequately explained by stupidity. I’m not sure it can, because merely stupid people don’t often shoot people in the back. That case, by the way, is in my neck of the woods.

  16. ppnl says:

    Yes but there is no hint of any criminal intent. There is no past connection between them, no argument, no motive at all. If he did it on purpose he did it to a total stranger for no reason while his own camera was recording him. He was sentenced to ten years but that was overturned on appeal. He is being retried last I heard.

    It reminds me of the BART shooting in Oakland:

    He was found guilty of involuntary man slaughter and served less than a year.

    At what point do you become criminally responsible for a brain fart? This is a little different from Zimmerman. What Zimmerman did was done with clear forethought against the advice of the dispatchers as a private citizen. He seems to be more morally culpable while at the same time legally clear.

  17. Major Zed says: has an interesting roundup of some well-disseminated falsehoods about the Zimmerman case at

  18. J@m3z Aitch says:


    Maybe the Grey’s Law corollary to Hanlon’s Razor applies:

    “Any sufficiently advanced incompetence is indistinguishable from malice.”

  19. lancifer666 says:

    Major Zed,

    That article is enlightening. There is no doubt that the media, especially traditionally liberal outlets, have distorted the facts of the case to fit the narrative of an innocent black teenager stalked and murdered by a racist white man, and the subsequent “miscarriage of justice” of his acquittal.

  20. ppnl says:

    As a fiction, Zimmerman the white supremacist rivals Obama the Kenyan-born commie Muslim.

    Yeah… no. Something of a false equivalence here. The narrative that Zimmerman was driven by racial hate appears to be seriously wrong but is not crazy. The idea that Obama is a Kenyan-born commie Muslim that is trying to destroy America is simply functionally insane.

    The worst thing is that neither the conservative or liberal news is pushing their respective narrative because they believe or even care about it. They are pushing it because it sells more laundry detergent. The liberal version is like “Days of our lives”. The conservative version is more like professional wrestling. There is no truth only a demographic.

  21. lancifer666 says:


    I don’t watch or listen to much conservative media but what little I have been exposed to is not pushing any distorted “narrative”, just suggesting that perhaps Zimmerman wasn’t a racist.

    The greatest harm is that this little Rorschach test for racial attitudes is being exploited to exacerbate racial tensions rather than lessen them.

  22. ppnl says:

    I don’t watch or listen to much conservative media but what little I have been exposed to is not pushing any distorted “narrative”, just suggesting that perhaps Zimmerman wasn’t a racist.

    Erm, well I never said they had pushed any narrative on this subject. I was referring to the Obama as Manchurian candidate narrative. However in the very article linked:

    Some far-right blogs have trafficked in bad information of their own, using Martin’s marijuana use, past fighting, and teenage social-media bluster to portray him as a thug and even spinning bizarre theories about his possible drug dealing the night of his death.

    Now clearly NBC news has far far more responsibility to get it right here than some “far right” blog. Equating these two would be wrong but it does show the siren call of the narrative.

    And some people at NBC did lose their job over the issue. I don’t know if PBS has corrected anything. The New Republic had some false crap out that they corrected but only after extended criticism.

    I don’t think Zimmerman should have ever been tried. Even if there were a degree of racism involved I still don’t think it can turn the facts in this case to a murder charge. He probably really was just defending himself. But in the end he did create the situation and he did carry a gun into it. Not illegal but really not a good idea.

    In the cop shooting incidents I mentioned above they probably experienced some version of a brain fart. I’m not sure the criminal justice system is the best way to handle these kinds of incidents. But I am sure that there needs to be serious consequences when cops screw up to this degree.

  23. lancifer666 says:


    I agree with your above comments.

    The subway platform shooting in Oakland was tragic but the cop almost certainly accidentally discharged his firearm. Otherwise you have to believe that he executed a complete stranger for merely being black and in full view of many witnesses including other police officers.

    I also agree that Zimmerman was probably defending himself but that he is at least partially responsible for escalating the incident. I don’t think that makes him criminally culpable but I would not be surprised if a civil jury were to find him liable in a wrongful death suit.

  24. Matty says:

    Lancifer, I’m a very long way from being a lawyer but can someone be liable for wrongful death if they are not also guilty of at least negligent manslaughter? That is I don’t understand how anyone could be responsible for what happened enough to deserve to loose a civil case but not responsible enough to have criminal culpability.

  25. Troublesome Frog says:


    But in the end he did create the situation and he did carry a gun into it. Not illegal but really not a good idea.

    This seems to me to be a much more important issue than what was in Zimmerman’s head when he decided to follow Martin. I think that the jury made the right decision, but I also think that more likely than not, this whole thing is ultimately Zimmerman’s fault. “More likely than not” just isn’t quite good enough for a murder charge.

    It sounds like we’re sort of in a legal limbo as to what to do when somebody starts a fight and then shoots his opponent when it’s clear that he’s losing. It seems like the concealed carry laws should make it fairly clear that you have a *massive* responsibility to avoid physical confrontation. How the burden of proof would work for that is problematic, especially if you can increase your chances of getting off by making sure that you’re the only living witness.


    Otherwise you have to believe that he executed a complete stranger for merely being black and in full view of many witnesses including other police officers.

    Exactly this. I don’t know why people think it’s sensible to paint the picture of a guy who was just looking to shoot a black kid and get away with it*. People with those desires are pretty rare, and people who would act on them even rarer. With Zimmerman, any racism component would be more about why he found Martin suspicious. While unfortunate, that’s not a crime.

    What he did after deciding he was dealing with a suspicious character is the important issue. That part of it isn’t about racism. It’s about the colossal stupidity that takes over some people when they have a gun and a misplaced sense of authority.

    *I also find it hard to believe that a kid who doesn’t seem to have a violent past would suddenly decide to jump a complete stranger and try to beat him to death for no apparent reason. The things people believe about their fellow human beings never cease to amaze me.

  26. J@m3z Aitch says:

    I don’t understand how anyone could be responsible for what happened enough to deserve to loose a civil case but not responsible enough to have criminal culpability.

    That’s an artifact of the criminal and civil justice systems being so thoroughly disconnected from each other. Not only are the actual charges different, so that they require different elements of evidence, but the standard of proof is wildly different, beyond reasonable doubt for criminal law, but merely a preponderance of the evidence for civil cases. I’d try to explain more thoroughly but I’m on a cell phone in a moving car.

  27. lancifer666 says:


    James’ answer about the different standards of evidence and different charges in civil vs. criminal trials is just what I was going to say.

    I’m not saying that I have seen evidence that Zimmerman was responsible for “wrongfully” causing Martin’s death but a jury only need decide that a “preponderance” of the evidence indicates that Zimmerman acted “negligently” to find in favor of Martin’s family.

    Troublesome Frog,

    I have not heard completely Zimmerman’s version of the story. I have heard evidence that Martin turned back to confront Zimmerman. The question is who initiated the physical contact.

    If Martin initiated the fight Zimmerman only had to feel that he was in danger of grevious injury or death to justify the use of deadly force. This is true whether he followed Martin or not, and whether he was armed or not.

    You seem to be suggesting that the fact that Zimmerman was armed placed restrictions on his movements or actions. Being armed does not limit your other rights. Although it is certainly possible that it may have embolden him to confront Martin. But if he had been trained in martial arts, or just a really big guy, the same might have been true and neither of those conditions would have limited his legal options either.

    He had every right to follow Martin in public and, if it happened, ask him what he was up to. Of course Martingale had the right to ignore him or tell him to fuck off, but being followed by a “creepy ass cracker” does not give Martin the right to assault Zimmerman, whether Zimmerman was armed or not.

    Of course that goes both ways, unless Zimmerman had seen Marting commit a crime he had no right to physical detain him or assault him.

  28. lancifer666 says:

    Sorry about the Martingale and Marting in the previous post. My wife’s I pad keeps trying to replace Martin for some damn reason.

  29. Troublesome Frog says:

    You seem to be suggesting that the fact that Zimmerman was armed placed restrictions on his movements or actions. Being armed does not limit your other rights.

    It doesn’t limit your rights, but it should massively increase your responsibilities. Having a gun in your possession turns every minor physical altercation into a life and death struggle.

    A guy who walks around with a gun trying to pick fights is a menace, even if he carefully never initiates physical contact. Much more so than a really big guy or a skilled fighter who picks fights. A skilled fighter or a really big guy doesn’t have to kill you if he’s worried you’re going to seriously hurt him. A guy with a gun who’s worried he’s about to be at your mercy pretty much has to pull the gun and shoot.

    I’m all for gun rights, but I’m not hearing so much from the gun rights advocates about gun responsibilities in this case. Somebody at The League asked the critical question: Based on what we’ve heard, were Zimmerman’s actions the actions of the “responsible gun owner” we hear so much about when people are pushing concealed carry?

  30. lancifer666 says:

    Troublesome Frog,

    I agree that a person carrying a concealed firearm should not bait people into fights. Of course that goes for unarmed people as well. But they needn’t “tippy toe” around like a milquetoast just because they are armed either.

    There is a very bright line between verbally confronting someone and attempting to physically harm them. If Martin crossed that line first I don’t care why he crossed it and whether Zimmerman was armed or not. This would make him responsible for what happened to him.

    If Zimmerman crossed it first then he is both criminally and civilly responsible for Martin’s death.

  31. lancifer666 says:

    The two most likely scenarios IMHO are that Martin turned back and initiated physical contact after being disturbed by Zimmerman following him or that Zimmerman attempted to physically detain Martin and a fight ensued.

    A jury decided that the first was more likely, or at least that there was not evidence “beyond a reasonable doubt” that the second occurred.

    Then there is the much more contentious and vague question of what should Zimmerman or Martin have done. This is where the many moral and practical questions come into play and where most of the disagreements ensue.

  32. Troublesome Frog says:

    I think we need to be careful about how much carefully avoiding throwing the first punch actually eliminates all responsibility. It’s a little bit like saying that people who smoke in gas stations are making wise decisions as long as we’re careful to point out that we’re against arson. At some point, you’re morally (if not legally) culpable for creating an unnecessarily dangerous situation.

    I mean, Buzz Aldrin was an intelligent, disciplined and law abiding senior citizen when he punched a guy in the heat of the moment in front of cameras for mouthing off. Relying on the goodwill and tolerance of others when deadly weapons involved is pretty dumb behavior.

    If I wanted to follow somebody and potentially confront them about suspicious criminal behavior, I would have to ask myself, “Is this important enough to risk my safety/life over?” If I had a gun and was a responsible gun owner, I would have to ask myself, “Is this important enough to risk my life *and* this stranger’s life *and* the lives of anybody who might be nearby if this turns physical?”

    For some people, it seems like the fact that carrying a gun reduces the “my life” part of the question and increases the “lives of other people I don’t know” part makes them more likely to confront. Especially the types of people who have cop complex.

    The two most likely scenarios IMHO are that Martin turned back and initiated physical contact after being disturbed by Zimmerman following him or that Zimmerman attempted to physically detain Martin and a fight ensued.

    Totally. In my experience 90% of fights start with some asshole thinking he can grab somebody’s shirt to get his attention or some other asshole shoving somebody because he’s inside his personal space. Once hands are laid on, it’s chaos and every man for himself. Given the people involved, I’d give a slight edge to the “grabbed the hoodie for not respecting my authority and then got punched” hypothesis a slight edge, but not a “send the guy to prison for murder” type of edge.

  33. Matty says:

    Thanks that makes a kind of sense though it still seems weird someone can be responsible and not responsible at the same time depending on the court you listen to.

  34. lancifer666 says:


    I think Zimmerman is a complete authoritarian, cop “wannabe”. The whole “neighborhood watch” thing takes on more than a whiff of vigilantism when you start patrolling your neighborhood while packing heat.

    A friend of mine was on a jury for a guy that came back to his apartment after a violent fight with his much larger girl friend. His version of the story was that she had confronted him with a knife, he fled and then came back with a gun to get his clothes. He claimed she attacked him with the knife when he re-entered the apartment and he shot her in self defense.

    There was evidence that he had called the police after the first incident and t hat she had previously been violent to him.

    The jury acquitted him of the murder charges but found him guilty of a charge that my friend couldn’t remember the exact legal name of, but it was something to the effect of knowingly causing a dangerous situation that could be expected to lead to bodily harm.

    This was in Indiana so I don’t know if it exists in Florida, but I could see Zimmerman, perhaps, being found guilty of this type of crime.

  35. ppnl says:

    Yeah, many people have tried but it is kinda hard to make general dumbassery illegal.

    I’m surprised that he was not found guilty of some form of manslaughter. If his actions were otherwise illegal and it caused a death…

    The penalty for manslaughter is highly dependent on circumstances so it is kind of a catchall for these kinds of situations.

  36. D.A. Ridgely says:

    James, I’m always on the lookout for more people not to read these days, so thanks for the heads-up on Greta What’s-her-name. Reminds me a bit of that silly “All in!” woman Mr. Kuznicki once noted as an example of the sort of blog we *didn’t* want to have. Another benefit of getting out of the blogviating business is the ability to avoid almost all exposure to the likes of the Zimmerman / Martin imbroglio. It only depresses me to rediscover how many people’s concept of justice is strict compliance with whatever visceral ignorance they may harbor let alone how inappropriate it is to hold a high profile trial up as an example of our woe-begotten criminal justice system. Irrespective of that, it’s always a pleasure to pop in from time to time and read what’s been on your mind lately. Cheers!

  37. AMW says:

    I remember “all in.” That was a classic!

    Every so often when I’m typing in blog URLs (no RSS feed for me!) I have the involuntary urge to enter Positive Liberty. Those were good times.

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