WASHINGTON -- The result of George Zimmerman's trial for killing Trayvon Martin has widely been transformed into a new civil rights event. A white man -- or a "white Hispanic," an inventive new description -- kills a black man under dubious circumstances, and parts of the nation explode.
I keep wondering whether we are focusing on the right questions in this tragic story. The killing of Martin in a dark-of-night confrontation in a gated community in Florida should be soberly studied, not primarily because of potential discrimination, but because this case brings up profound questions about citizen volunteerism in America today.
Here are the important questions that I do not see raised:
George Zimmerman says he was a kind of neighborhood watchman, a volunteer to patrol an area that had been the target of many burglaries in recent months. But what exactly were the rules under which he was acting? Was he permitted to carry a gun? Get out of his car? Begin a hostile confrontation with Martin? Keep after Martin even after he called 911 and was told to desist and let the police handle the situation?
We know from the trial, which exonerated him, that Zimmerman had some training, but exactly what? How was he to address someone he found threatening? Certainly, his challenge to Martin, asking what he was doing there, could only incite someone. What are the clothing styles on a person supposed to indicate, if anything at all?
I am asking these questions of all of us, but particularly of the old civil rights leaders and those in the violent ghettoes of Chicago and other big cities, who do not accept the jury's verdict. And I'm asking because more of the crucially important duties of the men and women who are sworn in as police -- and diplomats and journalists, too -- are passing to civilians.
What are the rules for these civilians? What laws or principles have they promised to uphold? Where and to what have they pledged their troth?
First we have the various neighborhood watches that have sprung up all across the country, as different races and peoples are thrown together with sometimes only their gates to keep them "safe" and to keep "the other" out. There are sheriffs' manuals and other lists of acceptable actions for these watchmen on the Internet, but apparently every neighborhood organization can write its own laws.
This may be a sign of safety for some homeowners or renters in a neighborhood, but it can equally serve as a threat to many people. This is why some of the recommendations advise that watchmen wear a uniform or decoration. One does not have to turn a Trayvon Martin into a Medgar Evers to wonder if this might have better served the intention of the neighborhood watch that night in Florida.
Second, we have the Pentagon and the State Department, which have spent millions of dollars on civilian contractors instead of having our military and diplomatic personnel and procedures be financially and morally responsible for this work.
No outside contractor in recent history, of course, has been more publicized and, in turn, vilified than Edward Snowden at the National Security Agency, who turned over massive amounts of data on phone monitoring to The Guardian newspaper. A 29-year-old high school dropout, Snowden had worked his way around from the NSA to the big contractor Booz Allen Hamilton. From there, he suddenly disappeared from sight to emerge with America's secrets in his briefcase.
To many Americans, Snowden, with his open, Midwestern smile and natural manner, was simply inexplicable: a Benedict Arnold in blue jeans and open shirt. But he was hardly alone. The Washington Post, in a prize-winning series, found that 30 percent of government work is now "outsourced," the favorite term for those who have never taken the vows to public service that regulars have taken. ABC News, at the time, went so far as to call such outsiders "contracted mercenaries" brought in to fight the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
If you study public institutions across the country, you will find many more examples of individuals, probably well-meaning men and women, who are not trained in a particular profession but are filling in for people who have an entirely different commitment to the job. (Think of "citizen journalists.")
As analysts delve into the historic Zimmerman trial, it will be seen how much the "stand your ground" laws and gun availability have added to the problems of race and of poor African-American boys in the inner city. President Obama himself touched on that, for the first time in any depth, as he spoke out after the trial about our need to "bolster and reinforce our African-American boys."
It seems a sad and tragic shame that our striving for justice in our country should be stuck in this wholly atypical moment. Clearly, if we want to hand these important duties of our society to untrained replacements, we must more clearly and urgently delineate their duties.
Two young men in the dark of night, each with a chip on his shoulder and clearly ready to fight, must not become the new symbol of America's struggle for equality.
(Georgie Anne Geyer has been a foreign correspondent and commentator on international affairs for more than 40 years. She can be reached at gigi_geyer(at)juno.com.)