Zimmerman and Manning: The Demands of Justice

Long after the February 2012 shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, defendant George Zimmerman, has been found not guilty by a jury of his peers. The case has remained a hot topic for media since it was first reported. The unarmed teenager was shot and killed in a street fight with Zimmerman, a 29-year-old member of his neighborhood watch. Details of the case are known, reported and have long been part of a national discussion. This is a very high profile case.

As the Zimmerman trial has been conducted, so too has the trial of Bradley Manning. Manning has become a household name among civil libertarians, but not to the majority of Americans.

Manning is a US Army soldier arrested in May 2010 for leaking classified material to WikiLeaks. Since his detention he has been charged with 22 offenses, including “aiding the enemy.” Perhaps the most well-known of the Manning leaks is the video showing war crimes — the repeated targeting of un-armed men, news informants and children — by US troops in Iraq. This leak raises disturbing questions about US foreign policy and is being treated as espionage rather than whistle blowing by the government (as is the Edward Snowden case).

What’s the difference between the Zimmerman case and the Manning case? Both trials are current, but there is no national discourse for Manning. One cannot make broad claims as to why, but maybe the answer lies in our conceptions of justice.

The system of justice utilized by the United States is “procedural justice.” In this system justice is a procedure, not an outcome. The system depends on due process rights and adherence to law.

What the American public tends to champion is “retributive justice” — justice based in the outcome of a trial. If a defendant is believed to be guilty in the public conscience then “justice” is only served if said defendant is found guilty.

Restorative justice,” however, encourages deep reflection. It focuses on the needs of the victims, the offenders and the impacted community. This type of justice is not concerned with procedure. Victims here take an active part in the process of justice and offenders are held accountable for, and take ownership of, their actions. Restorative justice focuses on human need and seeks solutions/support so that future offenses are prevented. Here, crime is done to individuals or communities instead of the state. It is the “why” — and what to do about it.

In restorative justice we see a major difference in the cases. In the much sensationalized Zimmerman trial we see a trial involving two individuals — more importantly, two Americans. We see historical tensions, social justice issues, and questions of power, force and race. We are all a part of this history, but we did not all participate in the crime, allowing us to reflect and form opinions of how to move forward.

This is where Bradley Manning is different. The same issues are raised, but we are all implicated in the story. It isn’t a crime among two individuals. This information charges all of us. It is our nation-state that has waged a never ending war on terror. It is our republic that is the offender. There are millions of victims and the global community is watching.

Perhaps we demanded coverage of the Zimmerman trial because there is a way to move forward, objectives achievable in the short term and clear goals for the long term. We are taking a national interest because Americans are involved and we wish to move the nation forward.

With the Bradley Manning case, however, our entire system is at war with “others.” Without dissent we support this behavior. We as a nation are the offenders. This makes us uncomfortable. The thought of owning up to our crimes is daunting, and what to do about US imperial hegemony — well, that makes us really uncomfortable. Instead of a calling to move our nation forward, hegemony gives us pause. It calls for deconstruction of our existing military, economic and political class.

One case rightly calls for a better nation, the other calls for the torch of liberty — our lost ideal.

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