I don't know what happened when George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin. It seems very likely that Zimmerman followed Martin because Martin was Black. It also seems very likely the police should have arrested Zimmerman. I don't know the Florida law that the police now appeal to in order to excuse their hesitation. The fact that Martin was African American and Zimmerman was not may very well be the only reason that Zimmerman did not easily escape responsibility for an unjustifiable homicide.
From what has been reported about the case, it seems to me that the essential fact has nothing to do with the racial identity of Martin, or Zimmerman who is apparently Hispanic on his mother's side. The essential fact is that Zimmerman was in contact with the police when he left his vehicle to follow Martin, and they told him not to do so.
It is reasonable and justified in an emergency to draw a weapon to defend yourself or to protect the lives of other innocent persons. It is only reasonable and justified when there is an emergency, which means that you have to act right now and cannot wait for the police to arrive. We deplore it when people stand by and let an atrocity happen.
However, when a private citizen takes action in such a case, he or she had better be very certain that it was absolutely necessary. In Mr. Zimmerman's case, apparently, the police told him to back off and the slain seventeen year old turned out to be armed with nothing more than a package of Skittles. To put it mildly, the burden of proof now falls on Mr. Zimmerman to show that he is not guilty of murder.
As this case hit the press, Dharun Ravi was convicted of a hate crime. From the New York Times:
A former Rutgers University student was convicted on Friday on all 15 charges he had faced for using a webcam to spy on his roommate having sex with another man, a verdict poised to broaden the definition of hate crimes in an era when laws have not kept up with evolving technology.
Mr. Ravi's roommate committed suicide after Ravi posted the footage on the net. Reason Magazine, a Libertarian journal, is worried about this verdict.
The jury acquitted Ravi of trying to intimidate his roommate at Rutgers University, Tyler Clementi, on September 19, 2010, when Ravi briefly used a webcam in his dorm room to watch Clementi kiss another man. But the jury nevertheless concluded that Clementi, who killed himself three days later for reasons that remain unclear, felt intimidated and "reasonably believed" he was targeted because he was gay. Under New Jersey law, that was enough.
To convict Ravi of this unintentional, hateless hate crime, the jury had to infer Clementi's state of mind and conclude that the circumstances justified it.
I have written in support of hate crimes legislation. I think that there are cases where it is in order. But for heaven's sake, if someone secretly films someone else having sex and then posts it on the internet, isn't that enough? If you do such a thing, aren't you responsible for the consequences, regardless of the sexual, racial, or ethnic identity of your victim? If you follow someone who seems to be suspicious and then shoot him, and he turns out to be unarmed an innocent, isn't that enough for a homicide conviction?
People should be held responsible for their actions. We seem to be confused about that right now.