Barack Obama’s statement that the death of Trayvon Martin was a tragedy that cries out for a more thorough investigation was the right and necessary thing to say.
But it fell far short of what was needed: a presidential call for a halt to the rhetoric that is stirring up racial rage and inflaming the nation. The incendiary language being deployed is both divisive and dangerous.
Addressing the Sanford, Fla., incident, black Muslim Minister Louis Farrakhan tweeted: “Where there is no justice, there will be no peace. Soon, and very soon, the law of retaliation may … be applied.”
The New Black Panther Party has issued a “Wanted Dead or Alive” poster featuring the face of George Zimmerman, the man who shot Martin, and printed up a flier saying Martin was “murdered in cold blood.”
When Panther leader Mikhail Muhammad was asked if this could ignite an explosive situation that has already seen death threats drive Zimmerman and his father from their homes, Muhammad cursed and said Zimmerman “should be fearful for his life.”
Demanding “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” the Black Panther leader offered $10,000 for Zimmerman’s capture and called for 5,000 black men to run him down.
“If the government won’t do the job, we’ll do it,” he warned.
Spike Lee helpfully tweeted Zimmerman’s home address.
Friends say Zimmerman fears for his life. One man has already been arrested for threatening to kill Bill Lee, the Sanford police chief who has stepped down and turned the investigation over to the state, the Justice Department, the FBI and a special prosecutor.
Returning from Geneva, Jesse Jackson, too, headed for Sanford, saying: “Blacks are under attack. … Targeting, arresting, convicting blacks and ultimately killing us is big business.” On arrival, Jackson said Trayvon Martin was a “kid shot down in cold blood by a vigilante.”
Talk-show host Joe Madison charged Zimmerman with a “hate crime.” The Grio, a black news and opinion website, compares the killing of Trayvon Martin to the 1955 murder of Emmett Till in Mississippi.
Till, 14, had flirted with a white woman. Her husband and brother kidnapped, mutilated and murdered the boy and dumped his body into the Tallahatchie River. Emmett Till was lynched.
Trayvon Martin was shot by an overzealous Neighborhood Watch volunteer who grew suspicious of an unfamiliar black man or youth in a hoodie walking at night in the rain in a gated community he patrolled.
What appears to have happened is that, after alerting police to Martin’s presence, Zimmerman followed him in his SUV – against the advice of the cops. Where the street ended, Zimmerman got out.
A fight ensued. According to two witnesses, Zimmerman was losing, flat on his back, screaming for help. It seems unlikely a 17-year-old football player like Martin, angry and in a fistfight, would be screaming for help.
Police say that when they got there, they found Martin dead and Zimmerman with a bloody nose, a cut on the back of his head and grass stains on the back of his shirt.
Did Zimmerman, on his back, losing the fight, fearing this black kid was a criminal who might beat him to death or grab his gun, fire in presumed self-defense? Did Martin, who had a right to be enraged with this character following and hassling him, start the fight?
Would Zimmerman, who carried a legal firearm, start a fistfight with an athletic black youth who was reportedly 6 inches taller?
The scenario above appears to be the one upon which Sanford police relied when they declined to arrest Zimmerman. That Trayvon’s body was taken to the morgue and identified as “John Doe” suggests that the police, too, concluded he was an intruder.
They were terribly wrong, as was Zimmerman. But to call this cold-blooded murder or an Emmett Till-type lynching appears, from the existing evidence, to be both demagogic and inflammatory.
Yet, there are questions that need answers.
Why, with a dead teenager, did the Sanford police not bring in Zimmerman and get his story on paper? Some journalists contend there are racial slurs on the tapes of Zimmerman talking to the cops. Others hear no such thing.
Zimmerman’s father calls the media portrayal of his son as a racist an injustice, and says his son has a Peruvian mother, is Spanish-speaking, grew up in a multiracial family and has many black friends.
And the clamor of the crowd – “Arrest him!” – raises a question.
Arrest him – for what?
If the Sanford police believe they have no case for murder or manslaughter or any felony, what do they charge him with, after they arrest him?
More critically, where is President Obama?
When Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was shot during a rampage by a crazed gunmen, Obama stepped in with a splendid address to cool the passions and call a halt to the false and fevered accusations of moral complicity in the monstrous crime of a lone killer.
Where is the Obama of Tucson now?