Zimmerman and the Privatization of Everything

My contribution to the debate surrounding the Zimmerman verdict will be short and (one hopes) sweet. It isn’t grounded in any particular expertise in case law. It’s just meant to be a pessimstic observation about the loss of (a) common sense.

Political philosophers after Hobbes draw a distinction between an enemy and a criminal. An enemy is someone defined by sovereign power. One state declares war on another, and when this happens, their citizens become enemies. A criminal in contrast is someone who represents an affront to the law, and who in a sense lives outside the law; the threat that he represents is private. One’s Second Amendment right to bear arms is in this context clearly a duty and obligation, an imperative to face down and defeat the enemy or enemies of one’s country. It’s not the same as a universal “right” to define and fight criminals. Of all people, John Locke understood the dangers inherent in this point of distinction: he argued that in a so-called state of nature without public authority, every individual could engage in self-defense. However, the egregious excesses of that condition – men using lethal force to avenge petty insults or crimes against property for example – was according to Locke what led human beings to leave that condition and enter into the social contract.

We no longer live in Locke’s state of nature – in truth we never did – and yet laws like Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” assume that we do. Such laws diminsh the Second Amendment by turning common defense into a hunt for “bad guys.” What once conveyed a vision of virtuous citizen-soldiers now evokes a world full of private contractors, a tremulous and bellicose mass of individuals, each with his particular grievances and shadowy comprehensions of threat, fully empowered to use lethal force. It's a tragic distortion.

Commentators on the Zimmerman case are already discussing it in terms of a conflict between what the law mandates versus the pursuit of justice. In my eyes, the terms are much clearer: it represents nothing more than the forward march of the privatization of everything.

Robert Geroux is a political theorist.

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