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The New American Way

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My wife and I have been considering purchasing a home. As part of my investigation of a particular property, I spent time on its block at various hours last week -- to get a sense of traffic patterns; to see whether neighbors make themselves visible on the sidewalks; to hear whether there are unpleasant sounds, or freeway noise, at night. This is not one of LA's highest income neighborhoods (though it is a lot closer to that, than to one of its lowest). These things require some investigation. I was there at 10 a.m. I was there at 4:30 p.m. I was there at 9:30 and 10:30 at night.

On one of my evening visits, among several who strolled or jogged by was an African-American couple in their thirties, walking arm-in-arm.

"Do you live around here?" I asked.

As soon as the words left my mouth, I realized I'd made a mistake. I realized I'd made a mistake before the human beings in front of me even had time to confirm my mistake with their reaction. I realized I'd made a mistake before the torrent of emotions that I witnessed swept over them, then swept over me, then returned to them, and came back to me again. So, I explained myself as quickly as I could, in an attempt to get us back on safer ground.

"We're thinking about buying this house right here, is all," I said, pointing. "That's why I ask. I'm just looking to find out how the neighborhood is. That's all."

I explained myself quickly because, by the time I started clarifying, the couple looked terrified. They literally recoiled. But I knew, before their terror became apparent, that my simple (ha!), innocent (is anything, anymore?), perfectly reasonable (to me, anyway) question was likely to sound to them like an interrogation, if not an accusation.

"What do you think you're doing around here?" was what they were likely to hear, or at least experience.

Can you blame them?

As for me, the milliseconds before I was able to explain my reason for addressing them were also filled with fear. Because I knew that a sense of vulnerability wasn't the only possible reaction they could have. They could have been furious. They could have felt -- also perfectly reasonably, considering recent events and dispositions -- that they were in danger. And then -- depending on who was armed with what, in what state, with which laws -- all Hell could have broken loose.

In case it's not clear already, my home-hunting story isn't about houses at all. It's about the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case, at least in a backhanded way, which people keep asking my opinion about. My feelings about this tragic social disaster are only peripherally about those individuals. (Don't get me wrong. I've got a host of hunches about each person, so far as I'm informed about them. More than I'm interested in going into here.) But, if you want my response to the narrative, and its recent twists and turns, it's this: I think Florida's laws in regard to self-defense mean that any two people who meet and fear each other are invited, if not obligated, to engage in a state sanctioned fight-to-the-death. So long as each is capable of sensing, or even imagining, the other as being frightened, then each understands they are under imminent threat of being legally exterminated by the other. So, unless they want to be the one left lying face down in the grass, they've got to seriously consider being the first to attack. Which, as you might imagine, can only ensure greater escalation, until something proves lethal to someone. "History is written by the victors," couldn't be any more vividly, and cruelly, rendered, than it is in states like Florida, with "Stand Your Ground," or similarly lenient, self-defense statutes.

What do I think about Trayvon Martin's death? I think the people who passed the laws, as they stand in Florida, made his death inevitable. If not his, certainly someone else's. I think the people who supported those laws, and who voted for the politicians who enacted them, made certain that he, or any number of others like him, would die. And, should the laws stand, rest assured, more will.

What do I think about George Zimmerman being acquitted? I wasn't surprised. The laws, as they stand in Florida, made the acquittal inevitable. The laws didn't require that he stay in his car, or forego a pursuit. And, once that pursuit made Trayvon Martin scared, the laws ensured that George Zimmerman would feel endangered, himself. Once the two confronted each other, however that happened, Zimmerman's choice to reach for his gun, to put its muzzle against another person's chest, and to send a projectile through that person's heart, became inevitable. Perhaps not inevitable with those two, on that night. But inevitable eventually, with someone, somewhere. If not Trayvon, someone else. If not George, someone else. That is what is going to happen when you enact laws that say that any two people who fear each other have the right to kill. The law tells you to make Goddamned sure you're the one who does it, before the other guy does it to you.

I'm aware that the angle I'm approaching it from largely ignores the role each person's race played in this particular series of unfortunate episodes. But, I'm not blind to it. Just as I'm not blind to the role race played in my simple question to a couple taking an evening stroll. It's just that, believe it or not, I think there's a larger dynamic on top of, and including, the unforgivable racial inequalities that still exist. This country is in a state of absolute frenzied insanity. Paranoia, beyond the level justified by any external threat. The greatest threat we face right now, by light years, is the threat of the damage we will do to ourselves, and to others, as a result of our own raging panic. Very much like the damage George Zimmerman did to Trayvon Martin. I do not know George Zimmerman as an individual (and I'm not eager to meet him). But, as a symptom, I know him well. He is the festering, infected boil on the skin of our nation. And we are riddled with them. Paranoid. Self-righteous. Deluded. Armed and dangerous. And determined not to be on the losing end of the duels the law encourages, if not demands.

I would like to apologize to the couple I spoke to, at 10 p.m. or so, in a nice neighborhood in Los Angeles, last week. Not because I was acting on anything other than honorable impulses. But, because, considering the state of our nation, it was reckless of me to put them, and myself, in that position. (Isn't that sad? Reckless to speak to potential neighbors?) Because they, as African-Americans, have real reason to fear me, and what my white skin apparently entitles me, by law, to fear about them. The least I can do is be more aware of the reasons for, and the reality of, their fear.

And I'd like to thank them, for not getting angry. They would have been entitled to. Instead, we had a nice chat. Neighborly, you might call it. I'd also like to thank them for not getting more afraid than they did. If that had happened, according to the laws in a good number of states, they would have been within their rights to kill me. Which would have put me within my rights to kill them. And there we'd be. Kill or Be Killed. It's the new American way.

Evan Handler is the author of two books, "Time On Fire: My Comedy of Terrors," and "It's Only Temporary: The Good News and the Bad News of Being Alive." More at EvanHandler.com