“I was simply trying to protect Reeva,” Oscar Pistorius said as he took the stand in his defense in his murder trial today, referring obliquely to the criminal who wasn’t, the imaginary intruder who Pistorius says was breaking into his home. In fear, he’s said, he sprung out of bed in the middle of the night, grabbed his gun and shot four times through the locked bathroom door. To his horror, he claims, he discovered then that the intruder was a figment of his imagination. He’d just killed his girlfriend. The one she needed protection from was him.
Oscar Pistorius on Trial
And this farfetched story is his defense. The prosecution claims he intentionally killed Reeva Steenkamp in an act of rage. Put aside for a moment the five witnesses who heard Steenkamp screaming before the gunfire, the texts where she said she was afraid of him, and his reckless gun use before the incident. Spare me from prison, Pistorius, in essence, says, I thought I was about to be attacked.
That’s a defense we’ve heard too many times. Fear of crime is often used to explain the shooting of an unarmed non-assailant. In South Africa, whites’ fears of the “black peril” was used to justify its viciously racist separate-but-unequal system for decades. Today, twenty years after apartheid was officially dismantled, millions of blacks continue to live in third world squalor in cities like Cape Town, while many whites live the next neighborhood over in the equivalent of Beverly Hills, only with round-the-clock armed guards, cameras, prison-like walls around their homes, concertina wire, and “rape doors” to protect their bedrooms. I spent a month there in 2012, and saw how massive income and racial inequality continued to divide the nation. Whites not only casually used blatantly racist language discussing their neighbors with me (“blacks are all stupid and violent,” one said) but their three favorite topics, also unsolicited, were crime, crime and crime – the continued dread of the “black peril.” I’d never been there in the apartheid years, but it seemed to me the country had only inched forward since that time, and that until the majority black population was lifted out of its extreme poverty, South Africa would remain painfully divided, its poverty-crime-fear cycle self-perpetuating.
But fear of crime is not uniquely South African. Here in the US, for example, neighborhood watch coordinator George Zimmerman instantly concluded that seventeen year old Trayvon Martin was a burglar, “a real suspicious guy.” Trayvon Martin was armed only with Skittles and a fruit drink and had no criminal history whatsoever. Motorist Michael Dunn saw a magical shotgun in the hands of Jordan Davis, a weapon no one else saw in the teenager’s hands. Police found no gun. Both Zimmerman and Dunn argued that they were scared for their lives. In those cases the defense presented harrowing stories of the defendant’s fear during the incident – suspicions and assumptions which turned out to be unfounded, but which the jury was expected to sympathize with. This strategy was successful. Zimmerman was acquitted, and the jury could not reach a verdict as to Dunn’s killing of Jordan Davis.
In South Africa, and in the US, it’s taken as a given that fear of crime is reasonable, an assumption rarely challenged. Yet while murder, rape and burglary rates are high in South Africa, Pistorius lived in a wealthy, fortified gated community with fortress-like high walls and state-of-the-art security. It had no history of crime, let alone violent home invasions. Nevertheless, according to a former girlfriend who testified, he was scared, with his gun beside his bed, ready to shoot.
Perception vs. Reality in the US
In the US, crime is sharply down nationwide, to 1960s levels. In major cities, crime has plummeted a whopping 64%. The drop has been even more pronounced in the South, where the Trayvon Martin and Jordan Dunn cases occurred. You’d never know this watching the American media, which fixates on gruesome crime stories. The American public remains deeply apprehensive about crime, all out of proportion the odds of its effect on our lives.
If what we fear most is death, homicide isn’t even in the top ten causes of death for Americans. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the leading killers are heart disease, cancer, chronic lower respiratory diseases, strokes, and accidents. If you really want to protect your family, be on the lookout for slippery and uneven surfaces in your home rather than threats from the outside. If you want to fear America’s most prolific killer, fear cheeseburgers.
American law requires each of us, at virtually all times, to behave reasonably. An ordinary fist fight does not legally entitle a participant to pull out a gun and shoot to kill the other. To prove self-defense, American shooters must generally prove they were reasonably in fear of great bodily injury or death. In my book, Suspicion Nation, I show how Zimmerman, who concedes he panicked and exaggerated the threat, did not behave reasonably. In the case of Michael Dunn, shooting into a car full of teenagers after an argument about loud music was far from reasonable.
And more broadly, I show how our widespread fears of black males as criminals are unreasonable. Most crimes in the US are intraracial: white on white, black on black. As a white woman living in an LA suburb, if my house is robbed, it’s six times as likely to be by a white burglar. When Zimmerman got out of his car that night (against police instructions) he was more likely to be hit by lightning than accosted by Trayvon Martin.
Fear is another way of saying we see others as lesser, as unworthy, as deserving of a violent response. In both South Africa and the US, that fear so often is racially tinged. The anxiety itself is corrosive of our national order, counterproductive in our struggle towards tolerance and equality, and too often deadly.
We may demonize individuals like George Zimmerman, Michael Dunn or Oscar Pistorius, but that’s so much easier than acknowledging what we may have in common with them: suspicion toward our neighbors and a fear-based culture where guns blaze and innocents fall. When we question the reasonableness of shooters’ fears – and our own — we begin to get at the root cause of a great deal of gun violence, and we can ultimately save lives.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Avvo.