Trayvon Martin was a fun-loving, normal teen with a bright future who was gunned down by a paranoid bigot out looking for trouble.
Trayvon Martin was a thug-in-the-making with a history of school suspensions, drug possession and violent language who attacked a neighborhood watch volunteer while in the act of attempted burglary.
Which of these is true?
Neither, most likely, but these are where the battle lines have been drawn. In the era of Rush Limbaugh and Al Sharpton, there is no middle ground. Nor is it likely — even possible — that anyone can ever actually know the truth, whatever that might be, about what happened that night. Our wish to believe what we need to believe compels us to insist that opinion is indisputable fact, that sketchy data is scientific proof, that a tawdry little mess in a remote Orlando exurb is, according to someone with a hyperventilating vocabulary named Toure, a defining moment in America. I hope not.
Still, it does make me pause. “Defining moments” of this nature are rarely actually defining; they are more often just good excuses for festering sores to burst open and spew blood and puss all over the landscape, ably abetted by all manner of thunderous nonsense from self-serving headline seekers whose venality is almost as revolting as the act that engendered it. This is not MLK murdered in Memphis by a right-wing psychotic; this is an event that was as inevitable as a sunset. In a world where kids worship thugs and wannabe cops “patrol” with loaded guns, sooner or later, this is going to happen.
And the dogma-speakers, endowing the event with any color or stripe supporting their own agendas, then wage war: as Thomas Carlyle said of an earlier set of dogmatics in the 18th century, they “have means and material: means, of number, organization, social weight; a material, at lowest, of public ignorance, known to be the mother of devotion.”
One of the saddest things about Trayvon Martin’s death, in addition to its senselessness, is its expropriation by both left and right to gin up passion for their unsupportable extremes. His name will join others — Tawana Brawley ring a bell? — co-opted by those interested only in their own advancement. There is a good chance he will be forgotten, like so many other fifteen-minute-martyrs, but for now, there will be no attempt to find any kind of “truth,” or advance any kind of healing, or derive any real benefit from his unfortunate demise. He is only fuel for a pyre that some wish to use to consume us.