Eugene Robinson Live

Mar 27, 2012

Live chat with Eugene Robinson about his columns and the latest in political news.

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Hello, everybody. Welcome to our weekly chat. Today's big news is happening at the Supreme Court: oral arguments on the constitutionality of the Afforable Care Act. Word from the scene is that Justice Anthony Kennedy, the swing vote, joined the conservatives in expressing great skepticism about the individual mandate. But he apparently retreated to a more neutral posture at the end. As usual, it looks like it's all about Kennedy -- with Roberts expected to go whichever way Kennedy goes. Meanwhile, today's column was about the Stand Your Ground law in Florida that's at the heart of the Trayvon Martin case. Let's get started.

A group (and please don't try to dismiss the group as a creation of Fox News as some posters to the WaPo have lamely tried) calls for Hispanic George Zimmerman "dead or alive" and we hear nothing from Holder or the DoJ. Where are they on looking out for Zimmerman's civil rights?

You're referring to the threat from the "New Black Panther Party," I assume? I put the name of the group in quotes because, alas, it is a creation of Fox News. But the threat is appalling and reprehensible nonetheless, and should be pursued by all relevant authorities. If they can find some "New Black Panther" to pursue.

Re Your column Dangerous Times for Black Men. First, I agree the shooting of Trayvon Martin is an outrage, legally justifiable or not. Because Stand Your Ground laws will not go away, maybe the better approach is to clarify that the law only applies to the initial contact between two people and cannot be regained subsequently, as in the Trayvon Martin case. Second, and you won't like this, it seems to me (as a white adult) that young black men are going out of their way in their music, dress and how they carry themselves to be "dangerous" and "thugs." They have been successful in fostering that image. Perhaps they and their elders need to question that strategy. Clearly, it played into the Trayvon Martin situation and probably almost every other confrontation young black men have with authority.

Do you happen to have any teenagers? When my sons were in high school, I found that their white suburban friends were every bit as much into the faux-thug image. The only difference is whether people assume "there's a kid who's posturing" or "there's a kid who's a dangerous thug."

In today's world of instant analysis and 24/7 has there been another rush to judgement. Based on Zimmerman's history, the person has a history of being a vigilante, however its now a lot murkier if he is a racist vigilante. he might be just extremely paranoid. Its unknown even who escalated the violence, as opposed to 24-48 hours after the shooting, when it was perceived almost universally to be a cold blooded killing. What can media, especially the sensationalist cable media, do to not enrage the public (at least until the facts are known) and yet still fully report on a heartbreaking and tragic story that needs to be told.

Well, the facts are the facts. A young kid, unarmed, no criminal record, never been in trouble, good grades, etc., is minding his own business on the way home from the convenience store. He is followed -- stalked might not be too tough a word -- by a grown man who is armed with a handgun. They have an encounter. Apparently, they have a fight. The young man is shot dead.

I agree with your take on the Stand Your Ground law. It seems that you could get away with murder very easily. Simply make sure there are no witnesses, shoot the person in the chest (not the back) and tell the police you believed you were in mortal danger. My question: why is the NRA so gung ho about this law? Is their dream to arm every man woman and child and return to the Wild West days where you could shoot someone for looking at you the wrong way?

I don't get it, either. It's not as if there's a shortage of gun-owning households in this country. The thing about these Stand Your Ground laws is that they're redundant. The law in every state already recognizes the concept of self-defense. One argument for Stand Your Ground is that some kind of legislation was needed to cover cases of extreme domestic abuse in which the woman's or the child's only means of defense was a gun. But it seems to me that a law could be written more narrowly to cover that situation. As written, Stand Your Ground laws just encourage hotheaeds to shoot -- even if there's a way the bloodshed could have been avoided.

Mr. Robinson, I am now very confused by the reports coming out. So the question is, who can use the Stand Your Ground Law? Trayvon was walking on public property and was harrassed, so he fought back. Zimmerman followed Trayvon, but was still on public property, got intoan altercation that apparently started to go bad for him, so he pulled the gun. The police are saying that only Zimmerman is protected by this Law. I just don't understand. Who does this law actually protect? Both individuals were at some point in public and "threatened" by the situtaion. Whose feelings of "threat" trump the other or do they cancel each other out?

I noted in this morning's column that Trayvon, by my reading of the law, had every right to enjoy the protections of the Stand Your Ground law -- he was being stalked by a strange man, and thus would understandably feel himself in danger. I fear the answer to your question -- who gets the protections of Stand Your Ground -- is a depressing one: Whoever's left alive.

Why don't people understand that the individual mandate is the same as personal responsibility? Do we need to repeal the laws that make the ER stabilize every patient first? How about making people who do not have/want health insurance go out and have a card saying how much health care cost they can afford, and that is what they have to use to get services in the ER? Also, make them pre-pay for services in the doctor's office...

Well, that's the basic argument for the mandate: If you don't buy health insurance, you receive medical care anyway -- and the rest of us pay for it. It's hard to imagine how the health insurance exchanges in the Affordable Care Act can work without the mandate.

Why the obsession with this law? The law seems very well written and only differs from the traditional definition of self-defense with "and does not have a duty to retreat." Far more key is the language of the law that does not provide the defense to the aggressor and in fact does requires an aggressor to seeks escape before being able to avail himself of a claim to self-defense when using deadly force. What is the purpose of manufacturing this controversy about the law when there are very serious issues at play here? An armed, neighborhood watch leader - wanna be police officer - followed someone he thought did not fit into his neighborhood based on race and attire and forced a confrontation only to resolve it through deadly force. We should be talking about why a neighborhood wants someone like Zimmerman armed and roving about? That's what we should be talking about.

Because I think the law is a real factor. The Tampa Bay Times took a look at the Florida law and found that in its first five years, there had been a tripling of justifiable homicides. The law was being used not just in cases of assault or home invasion, but in bar fights and violent disputes between gang members. Some police and prosecutors have been vocal opponents of the law.

Mr. Robinson, today you wrote, and I quote "Police decided to release Zimmerman without charges because of the Stand Your Ground law. The relevant part of the statute says that "a person who is not engaged in an unlawful activity and who is attacked has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force". From what I know of what happened between Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman, it appears that Mr. Zimmerman stalked the young Mr. Martin and attacked the young man. I can only assume that Trayvon defended himself, getting the better of George, and thus George shot him. It does not sound unreasonable. Trayvon Martin had no weapon and had the right to defend himself. Just because you get the best of a paranoid bully in a fair fight, it does not give the bully the right to shoot you.

That would be my view, too. And remember that while we know, or think we know, who won the fight, we have only Zimmerman's word as to who started it.

Eugene, first - kudos to you for being very careful to note that all of the facts have not yet come to light in this tragedy. I wish more folks in the media followed that principle in this case and many others. Second, a lot of new less-than-flattering information about Martin's background have been leaking out or uncovered and a witness now seems to corroborate some of Zimmerman's story. If, in fact, Martin attacked Zimmerman, should this story have received such prominent attention? Wouldn't it be just another (tragic) case for the courts to work out?

There is no corroborated allegation that "Martin attacked Zimmerman." We do not know who started the fight -- asuuming it's true that witnesses confirm a fight took place. We do know that Martin was unarmed, that Zimmerman had a loaded pistol, and that Zimmerman followed Martin after being told not to, thus initiating whatever encounter took place. And we know that Martin was shot dead, while Zimmerman emerged with injuries so minor that he declined hospital treatment. 

"A young kid, unarmed, no criminal record, never been in trouble, good grades, etc., is minding his own business on the way home from the convenience store. He is followed -- stalked might not be too tough a word -- by a grown man who is armed with a handgun. They have an encounter. Apparently, they have a fight." Facts are facts, but presentation is important. I'd say that "a 17-year old young man, suspended from school and with a conflicted history, had an encounter with another man volunteering in the neighborhood watch. They have an encounter, apparently a fight, and in the end one is injured and the other dead from a gunshot." Both versions may be factually correct, but the inference is far different.

Sure it's different if you leave out the pertinent facts. The 17-year-old was unarmed. The neighborhood watch volunteer, who carried a loaded handgun, was told not to follow the 17-year-old but did so anyway.

Three years ago I didn't have health insurance (a state I was in for about six years). I had an accident that required me to go to the ER and I ended up with a $1000 bill. I was working minimum wage at a restaurant in a particularly hard hit tourism city. I couldn't pay it back. Just couldn't. And you know what - that was really bad of me. I know. I'm now in a position to pay back my bill and am doing just that. I'm now sure what my overall thing here is but I do know is that people like me don't want to be "freeloaders" or devoid of personal responsibility, but it's really hard to be without health insurance.

The obvious answer is universal health insurance. The Affordable Care Act makes it possible for 31 million uninsured Americans to obtain health insurance, but that means up to 25 million more will remain uninsured. I wish President Obama and the Democrats had been able to agree on a genuinely universal approach to health care reform, which probably would have involved some kind of single-payer system. But that didn't happen. 

Do you know, what do opponents propose is done about the uninsured people who need or seek emergency medical treatment? They are left untreated? Or who should foot the cost? I can't find the answer to this. Thank you.

They haven't given us an answer, beyond the prediction that kind-hearted doctors will treat uninsured people anyway. The truth is that uninsured people will go to the emergency room, where hospitals are required to treat them. And the rest of us will pay. And costs, overall, will be much higher than they need to be.

Let's talk politics. We are now in the April doldrums concerning the Republican race. What's your take about the status?

It's probably going to be Romney -- who lost to Santorum by 20 points in Louisiana the other day. Santorum and Gingrich may be able to keep Romney from wrapping it up before the convention, but he'll probably be so close that he'll scrape the needed delegates together pretty quickly. Having said that, every single prediction about this race, so far, has been wrong.

I understand your points, but you didn't answer my questions. I agree - we don't know what happened. If, in fact, Martin attacked Zimmerman, should this story have received such prominent attention? Wouldn't it be just another (tragic) case for the courts to work out?

No. Martin was minding his own business. There would have been no encounter if Zimmerman hadn't stalked him -- against police instructions. It is immaterial who threw the first punch.

It seems like this case may be looking a lot like the Duke Lacrosse case a few years ago. An initial claimed crime with enormous, racial and political overtones; the media jump all over it and sensationalize it; activists and pundits use the event as a foil for their own grievances; the facts become more muddled; over time the judicial process wins out and the case is resolved (maybe in a way that absolves or exonerates the accused); then there are the requisite handful of retrospective stories about how the press perhaps went a bit crazy and maybe they shouldn't do that again in the future. Didn't we learn anything from that experience?

There is no comparison. In the Duke case, it turned out that there was no rape or sexual assault. In the Martin case, it is undisputed that an unarmed teenager, on his way home from the store, was stalked and later shot by a self-appointed neighborhood guardian. In neither case did the facts become muddled. In the Duke case, they turned out not to be facts at all. In the Martin case, the facts are as definitive as death.

Gene, it does strike me that this would have two effects. One, it would be a heavy blow against the president, but enrage his allies and build support for what we know is constitutional, Medicare E (for all). However, on the other side, it's not quite certain it would be a good thing. The GOP would lose it's clarion call and on top of that, the public would turn to them for their constitutional alternative approach, which is.... The GOP would be hugely vulnerable because they don't have any plan and would be expected to do something about healthcare if they were to take power in 2013.

I've heard this argument, and I guess it might be right, but I find it hard to imagine that a ruling overturning the mandate would be seen as any kind of victory at the White House or among Democrats on Capitol Hill.

Gene: Yes, there were a lot of guns in the Old West and many of the men who went there were Civil War veterans. However, it's interesting to note that most towns--including the fabled Dodge City KS and Tombstone AZ--had ordinances against carrying guns. It seemed the town fathers knew that saloons, gambling and guns were a combustible mixture and so banned them. Wyatt Earp, when "lawing" in Dodge, was known to go up to some cowboy who was carrying a pistol, smile pleasantly, and then quickly bring his own revolver down on the trail hand's head, so he could take the man's gun, returning it when the cowboy was ready to leave town. In fact, the only classic gunfight in Western history happened in Tombstone when a group of men refused to be disarmed after going around town making loud threats against the Deputy U.S. Marshal, Virgil Earp. That was the Gunfight at the OK Corral and it's famous because it's the only recorded event of its kind.

The mythological view -- that every man in the West had a six-shooter on his hip at all times -- is wrong. But for some reason, we don't seem to be able to let it go.


My time's up, folks. Thanks for participating, and I'll see you against next week.

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Eugene Robinson
Eugene Robinson is an Associate Editor and twice-weekly columnist for The Washington Post. His column appears on Tuesdays and Fridays. In a 25-year career at The Post, Robinson has been city hall reporter, city editor, foreign correspondent in Buenos Aires and London, foreign editor, and assistant managing editor in charge of the paper's award-winning Style section. In 2005, he started writing a column for the Op-Ed page. He is the author of "Coal to Cream: A Black Man's Journey Beyond Color to an Affirmation of Race" (1999) and "Last Dance in Havana" (2004). Robinson is a member of the National Association of Black Journalists and has received numerous journalism awards.
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