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Out of a shooting tragedy, a badly wounded rule of law

(Image Source: Hypervocal)

The national conversation surrounding the aftermath of the Trayvon Martin shooting frayed on critical challenges we face everyday as Americans – race relations, violent crime, discrimination, black youth unemployment and more.

But in the midst of it all, the ‘rule of law’, a pillar of our way of life and the very backbone of our civilized society, has been gravely undermined.

With nobody seemingly paying attention, some of us are left to ponder.

From President Obama to our congressmen and civic leaders, all seem to have set aside the burden – as it may exist in a tragedy like this one – to foster trust and faith in the rule of law. It is a responsibility that they, by virtue of their leadership role, must carry out. But they chose not to, opting instead to seek out any gains, political or otherwise.

President Obama initially offered what he defined a soul-searching commentary on the Martin shooting, as the protests spread wider and the shooter George Zimmerman remained free. Unfortunately, the president’s comment was rich in racial overtones. “If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon,” he said on the White House lawn. And as his statement was then criticized on the GOP presidential campaign trail, the president quickly unleashed his Senior Adviser David Plouffe on the counter-attack, further elevating the White House stakes in the scrutiny of the tragedy.

On Capitol Hill, echoing strong rhetoric by her colleagues, Democratic Congresswoman Corrine Brown decried Sanford police inaction and said she did not know if it was due to incompetence, a cover-up or "all of the above." Brown’s claim was no doubt gravely irresponsible. It aimed at undermining the very legal institutions that are at work in the midst of a complex legal and criminal investigation.

In the streets, Reverends Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson have led the charge in calling for the arrest and indictment of George Zimmerman. For all practical purposes, they have handed down a guilty verdict of hate crime to someone who is under investigation for his actions by both federal and state authorities and is yet, if ever, to be charged.

In the meantime, these very same leaders – in the White House, Congress and our society – are failing to decry and denounce extreme and dangerous actions being undertaken by groups such as the New Black Panther Party and their $10,000 bond for the capture of Zimmerman; a mob of 150 protesting high school students ransacking a Walgreens; and a Spike Lee tweeting to 240,000 followers the address of an elderly couple thought to be that of Zimmerman.

These are all, among others, potentially dangerous actions that should be strongly denounced by the very leaders politicizing the issue.

While the rule of law may exist in an nondemocratic society, there may not be a civilized and democratic society without the rule of law.

It is okay to question our institutions and processes. It is democratic to do so. And sometimes, it is even expected.  But to do so for political gains, particularly at a tragic moment like this one, is irresponsible.

In the court of public opinion, we may find someone guilty without due process. But public opinion is nothing more than the aggregate of individual private opinion. It is an expression of the opinion held by private individuals. As such, it carries little or no responsibility for society at large. It is, in fact, largely independent of our institutions.

But our leaders, particularly those we elect, are in many ways our institutions. For them, it becomes tantamount to show respect for the same institutions and processes they lead. Their role requires respect for the preeminence of the processes associated with the rule of law – investigatory, legal and judicial processes.

Any criticism by our leaders of such processes should not be at will. It must always be held to the highest of standards in form, substance and timing. And certainly, it should never be advanced during a personal and family tragedy like this one.

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